Cookies, cake, potato chips, ice cream, soda and even energy drinks — these are some of the foods and beverages deemed to cause obesity, cavities and other health problems and thus would not be eligible for purchase with food stamps, under a "junk food" bill wending its way through the General Assembly.
Monday, it passed out of the House by a vote of 55-39.
Bill sponsor, state Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) has sparked a conversation among health advocates, taxpayers, nutritionists and others about what’s appropriate dictates to a population struggling just to buy food.
Bentley says Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program assistance, a taxpayer subsidy run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for low-income people to buy groceries, is routinely used to make unhealthy food choices that, cumulatively, cost additional tax dollars when medical conditions arise and are treated under Medicare, Medicaid and other shared-cost programs and mechanisms. Some who work with low-income shoppers say the poor don’t have much choice but to purchase the food that’s available to them, whether it’s healthy or not. As it’s meant as a supplement and not as someone’s entire food budget, the average food stamp benefit in Arkansas comes out to $115.30 per month, or a little less than four dollars per day.
"People are often looking to just be able to feel full, and on four dollars a day, that is not going to buy you fresh vegetables and fruit," said Nancy Conley, Communications Director for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. Conley said education is a better way to encourage healthier diets rather than more restrictions. Many of her clients actually lack access to cooking appliances and transportation to grocery stores with fresh produce and raw meats. They shop at small marts with salty snacks, candy bars and bottles of soda instead. Because food stamps are a federal program, the USDA has the power to override food stamp prohibitions put forth by the state, and the agency has never never granted a waiver for any state or city to enact such bans. But Rep. Bentley's confident Arkansas’ ban will get a different reception this year. "We have a new administration, so it’s the reason I filed the bill. Our President may have some more common sense," she said.
Opponents of restrictions on SNAP assistance point out, too, that at $4 a day, most recipients’ food stamps don’t represent the sum total of their grocery budgets. So restrictions often mean simply shifting additional groceries into the food stamps pile, leaving others such as cigarettes or beer for cash purchase.
Others expressed concern about the financial impact on grocery stores and retailers, which might have to invest in new scanner software or labeling to detect or mark ineligible items tallied at checkout.
"When you go into the business side of it, there’s a lot of problems with implementation," said Charlie Spakes, president of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association.
The need to address unhealthy food choices paid for with subsidies like food stamps is understandable, he said, but this bill would place a heavy burden on grocers that would need to determine which of their 30,000 to 50,000 products, along with the 10,000 to 15,000 new products submitted for consideration every year, are eligible for purchase with food stamps.
Supporters of the bill say all other concerns are outweighed by the reality that unhealthy foods are causing weight and health problems for an already vulnerable population.
"In our state, we have a huge obesity problem. We are 48th in the nation when it comes to health," said Bentley, a nurse by training. Arkansas was once considered the fattest state in the nation but fell to 6th, with more than one in three adults qualifying as obese, according to the last report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Reports that food stamp recipients spend excessively on soda are disputed, but the perception persists on social media. A meme that depicts a woman tumbling out of a mobility scooter reaching for a case of soda at Walmart went viral and still circulates on Facebook and elsewhere four years after the photo was taken. (The woman later explained her side of the story here.)
Still, Tonya Johnson, director of nutrition services at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said even if there’s disagreement over what qualifies as "junk food," virtually no expert would defend soda. It has nothing to offer nutritionally. Johnson favors the restrictions under HB1035, not as a punishment but as a way to get food stamp clients moving to healthier choices. Additional educational outreach should also be considered, as well as any incentive that would discount the price of healthier food options — or boost the buying power of food stamps — for those using the subsidy.
"I really like the idea when they started using the SNAP program at the farmers markets," Johnson said. "If we were able to utilize more of the food stamp dollars, the WIC dollars, for fresh produce, then we’re really going to be making an impact in the lives of the people who use these programs," nevermind local farmers.
Nearly 469,000, or roughly one in six, Arkansans use food stamps for part or all of food budgets.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.