Tennessee Gives Up On Likely Futile Push To Ban Junk Food From Food Stamps Program

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A Tennessee lawmaker withdrew a bill banning junk food purchases in the food stamps program Tuesday, at the same time Arkansas state legislature moved a similar proposed law forward.

The bills in each state would ask the Department of Agriculture for permission to ban food items from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps.

Tennessee state Rep. Sheila Butt, who proposed the legislation, withdrew the bill after realizing that no other state has successfully received permission to ban food items from the SNAP program, and that doing so would require “an act of Congress.”

“Many states over the years have asked for a waiver to be able to make changes to the program and not one has ever been granted,” Butt told ABC News affiliate WATE. “There is a new administration coming in Washington on Friday and there is the real possibility that state’s rights will be recognized to run their own states, their own programs, defend their own Constitutions and spend their money without hundreds of strings attached from the federal government.”

Arkansas, however, is moving forward with its own request for a waiver. The state’s House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee voted Tuesday to bring the Rep. Mary Bentley’s proposed legislation to the floor, Arkansas Online reports.

Bentley’s bill, proposed in December, would direct the Arkansas Department of Human services to ask the USDA to grant a waiver so the state could limit what food is eligible for welfare recipients to purchase. (RELATED: Arkansas Might Ban Buying Junk Food With Food Stamps) 

The bill doesn’t say exactly what foods would be banned from the food stamps program, but “chips and Cokes and candy bars” would likely be on the list of prohibited items, Bentley told Arkansas Online. “People can go buy Red Bull with food stamps, and that’s not encouraging health,” Bentley said.

Arkansas has a 34 percent obesity rate, one of the worst in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The state had nearly half a million people enrolled on food stamps last year, also called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and paid out $648.8 million in federal benefits, USDA reports.

Other states, including Maine, Minnesota and New York City have tried to limit what foods SNAP recipients can buy, but the federal government has so far prevented any state or municipality from placing any additional restrictions on the program.

Families on food stamps typically buy the same kind of groceries that other families purchase, except when it comes to soda. A recent USDA report revealed that food stamps recipients spend more on soda than on vegetables, bread or fruit. In a study that looked at all purchases made at an unnamed nation-wide grocery store, 9.3 percent of all food stamp purchases in the $74 billion program went to sugar sweetened beverages (excluding fruit juices). Sodas and sugary drinks accounted for 7 percent of non-food stamps purchases.

Maine, which asked the USDA for a waiver to ban snacks and soda purchases in 2013, is still fighting with the federal agency that ostensibly seeks to encourage food stamps users to purchase healthy and nutritions food.

Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage said in June that USDA has a double standard, on the one hand advocating healthy nutrition while at the same time using taxpayer money to subsidize a “steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew” for poor people on welfare. The state even threatened to refuse to implement the federally-funded food stamps program if the USDA did not allow it to restrict purchases.

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