Food stamp recipients in New York could be barred from using their benefits to purchase “luxury” items like steaks and lobsters if a bill makes it through the state legislature.
State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Oswegatchie, introduced legislation last week that would impose restrictions on enrollees in New York’s food stamps program to ensure they purchase only food and beverages deemed “essential.”
In the bill’s memo, Ritchie said her aim is to “improve public health and promote better nutrition” as obesity continues to rise across the nation, costing U.S. taxpayers $147 billion a year. She wrote:
These reforms, by limiting the purchase of nonessential and often more expensive items, also will help low-income families and individuals stretch their food budgets to ensure that they are meeting their nutritional needs.
Under the bill, New York legislators would delegate responsibility to the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance to create a list of “luxury food items” that enrollees in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would be prohibited from purchasing with their food stamp subsidies.
High-end steaks and lobster should be banned, Ritchie suggests, along with “non-essential” junk foods including soda, ice cream, and cookies.
Republicans in other states last year sought to pass similar bills.
In Wisconsin, state Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, introduced legislation last April that would have mandated that participants in that state’s food stamp program, FoodShare, spend two-thirds of their benefits on approved nutritious items including fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and poultry.
Recipients would have been able to spend a third of benefits on less nutritious items but would be barred entirely from purchasing shellfish, including crab and lobster.
Brooks told a local newspaper at the time that his legislation wasn’t intended to “stigmatize” or “shame” anyone, but rather was aimed at fixing “perceived abuses” in Wisconsin’s food stamp program.
The bill sailed through the state Assembly but was dead on arrival in the state Senate.
GOP lawmakers in Maine and Missouri also pushed legislation last summer similar to Ritchie’s new bill to strip junk food entirely from food stamp benefits. Those bills did not pass.
Eight other states—Illinois, Minnesota, California, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Vermont, and Texas—also unsuccessfully attempted banning the use of food stamps toward junk food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in a 2007 study that moves to restrict food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase junk food would create “major implementation challenges and increase program complexity and costs.”
The report noted that such restrictions might not actually alter the type of food enrollees purchase, and that there is “no evidence” that food stamp benefits contribute directly to “poor food choices” and obesity.
In September 2013, The Hill newspaper cited a 2012 study that found food stamps were used to purchase about $2 billion a year in junk food. The study concluded that more than half of beverages purchased through food stamps were “sugary drinks.”
In response, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., proposed a bill to restrict federal SNAP recipients to purchasing only healthy food approved under the strict guidelines of the Women, Infants, and Children program. His bill died.
Liberal media outlets such as Mother Jones and ThinkProgress adamantly reject proposals to prevent food stamp enrollees from using their benefits on certain food items.
ThinkProgress said the attempts reflect “conservatives around the country being loudly concerned about the scourge of poor people making their own decisions.”