MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A bill aimed at encouraging food stamp recipients in Wisconsin to eat healthier by limiting the amount of benefits that could be spent on junk food won approval from the state Assembly on Tuesday.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dean Kaufert of Neenah, would require people enrolled in Wisconsin's food stamps program, or FoodShare, to spend at least two-thirds of their monthly benefits on designated items such as milk, bread and vegetables. They could spend their remaining benefits on any authorized food. The measure, which does not define junk food, cleared the Assembly on a 68-26 vote and now heads to the Senate.
Kaufert said recipients should use food stamps responsibly.
"I am not banning anything or changing the eligibility," Kaufert told lawmakers. "But we should provide some guidelines when it's paid by taxpayer dollars."
Kaufert's proposal would require a majority of benefits to be used on products already approved for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, as well as beef, pork, chicken, fish or vegetables that are not on the list.
Some Democrats said while they agreed the bill was intended to help people eat healthier, it may be difficult and expensive to implement new rules, and the proposal will not solve poverty in Wisconsin.
Rep. LaTonya Johnson, a Milwaukee Democrat, said many low-income people living in the inner city cannot get to full-service grocery stores that provide foods suggested by the proposal. She said telling them what to eat will unfairly label them.
"We tend to think they are abusing their privilege," Johnson said. "But they are only buying what they have access to and what they can afford."
Representatives from food companies, grocery stores and food banks told lawmakers last month at a public hearing the restrictions would not only shame recipients but also burden businesses with enforcement.
Nick George, president of the Midwest Food Processors Association, said he is skeptical of letting the government decide what food is healthy or not. In a letter sent to lawmakers last month, George noted a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative that would limit servings of starchy vegetables like potatoes and peas for the federal School Lunch Program was widely criticized by nutritionists for being detrimental to students. USDA withdrew the proposal.
George said in an interview Monday that Kaufert's bill may hurt jobs, as restrictions on food purchases will upset the business of Wisconsin producers who grow or process cheese, cranberries, sweet corn, green beans and meats.
"Which one of these will make the next list and be considered to have no sufficient nutritional value?" he asked.
The proposal would require the state Department of Health Services, which administers FoodShare in Wisconsin, to implement the new purchasing guidelines and issue a new benefit card to track what people buy.
To do so, the DHS has to get a federal waiver from the USDA, which has been reluctant to grant similar requests. It denied Minnesota's request for a waiver in 2004 to prohibit purchase of candy or soda, as well as New York City's 2010 request to ban purchase of certain sugary drinks.
The USDA has said there are no clear standards in defining foods as healthy or unhealthy, and trying to restrict food purchases would be too expensive and difficult since many new products are introduced each year.
Eight states introduced legislation last year to limit what types of food can be purchased, but none passed a measure.