Mississippi bill would force food stamp users to eat healthy

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There is no question that children today are less active than those in times past. Video games, the Internet and satellite TV have significantly added to that trend by forcing a sedentary lifestyle, and as a result, childhood obesity is at an all time high.

But the proposed action of one Mississippi lawmaker has led some to believe politicians have gone too far by attempting to regulate what people eat.

Senator Bill Stone (D-MS) went public with his idea this week when he presented Senate Bill 2293, a bill that would prohibit recipients of SNAP benefits from buying candy, sugary drinks and unhealthy foods with their EBT card.

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This would greatly affect the black populace in Mississippi where state officials confirmed that more than 630,000 people receive monthly benefits to purchase food items.

According to a study compiled by the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS), in September 2011, 21 percent of Mississippians were receiving monthly food stamp or SNAP benefits. Of that ratio, 2.39 percent were Asian/Hispanic/Other, 31.53 percent where white and 66.08 percent were black.

Stone said the purpose of the bill is not to force healthy eating on SNAP recipients, necessarily, but to promote healthy eating for the benefit of the children.

“I know a lot of people have picked up on this bill and they dub it as politicians abusing the system,” Stone said. “But this is about what’s healthy for the children. That’s it in a nutshell.”

This was Stone’s first time introducing the bill to the legislature and he said it stemmed from what he saw while standing in a checkout line in December 2011.

“I was behind this lady with a shopping basket loaded with sugary drinks, potato chips, cookies and candy,” Stone said. “She had nothing of any nutritional value in her cart and when it came time for her to pay, she pulled out her EBT card and paid for it. There was no breakfast cereal, no meats, nothing but pure junk. And I thought to myself, ‘we should not be paying for this junk.’ We should be providing nutrition to sustain children. She’s an adult. What she puts in her own body is her own business. But it’s not acceptable for the children.”

Johnny, the assistant manager of a grocery store in Grenada, Miss., disagreed.

“I think what he saw was probably a person, not buying food for the family, but probably a person that had a ‘Mom and Pop’ store,’” he said. “And yes, you do have people that abuse the system. They abuse the benefits. But my opinion on that is, once you give somebody something, you give it to them. You can’t dictate what you want them to do with it. This is America. And only in America do you have freedom of speech – freedom of everything. When you start dictating that – you take that freedom away.”

Charlie Smith, the Legislative Liaison for MDHS, said the food stamp/SNAP program is federally funded, but ultimately the money comes from taxpayers, and based on MDHS guidelines, SNAP recipients can use their monthly benefits to purchase most food items with the exception of hot foods, such as those in the deli or those that can be eaten in the store.

Other states, such as Illinois, have similar SNAP stipulations, and they allow recipients to use their EBT cards to purchase seeds and plants to grow foods in a home garden environment – as does Mississippi.

But Smith said to his knowledge, no other states prohibit SNAP recipients from purchasing junk food. But past efforts by MDHS officials to restrict SNAP recipients in Mississippi to buying fresh fruits and vegetables, has failed before Congress.

“A lot of people have said you should just have healthy food with SNAP benefits and people shouldn’t be able to buy all this junk food,” he said. “So we put our two-cents worth in, and if the bill tried to pass, it didn’t, or I don’t even know if they tried to put in.”

Stone, one of the state’s few democrats in office, said his decision was largely influenced by first lady Michelle Obama and her efforts for healthier eating and fighting childhood obesity. In fact, one of the “Five Simple Steps To Success” in Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign is for parents to “cut down on sugary drinks.”

“I’m not trying to be punitive to these recipients,” Stone said. “But my intent is to keep families from wasting their benefits. I’m going after foods that are obviously detrimental to children’s health.”

Proponents of Stone’s measure said Stone is on the right track because for the last eight years, Mississippi has consistently held the title as the nation’s ‘fattest state’. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said in 2010, 34 percent of Mississippians were overweight, while a staggering 44.5 percent of children in the state were considered obese. Again, the highest ranking in the nation.

“We can’t spell out everything in the law,” Stone said. “When we see parents buying all of this junk food, you wonder what their children are eating. They’re going without bacon and eggs, good food that’s nutritious.”

“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” said Peggy Lemon, a Mississippi grandmother raising her five grandchildren using SNAP benefits. “I never did buy a lot of candy for my grandkids, so it wouldn’t make me a difference one way or another.”

Opponents to Stone’s bill, however, believe if the bill passes, it may increase crime rates or limit how much a household can buy due to the inflated costs of healthier food options such as fresh fruits and vegetables versus cheaper less healthier options.

“We don’t want [vendors] to raise their costs and keep recipients from buying healthy food,” Stone said. “But this is one of the things in the bill we’ll have to work on.”

“You have some people out there who do what they have to do to live,” Johnny, mentioned earlier, said. “And I’d rather for someone to spend the benefits the way they want than to be out here robbing, stealing and that kind of thing. The crime rate here is already high. And I feel like if they try to control that, the crime rate is only going to go up.”

Charlie Smith, of MDHS, said that while healthier eating is something state officials would like to see with SNAP recipients, he said a mandate to do so would have to be on a congressional level.

“SNAP benefits are a federal program,” he said. “We can’t take a state law and supersede a federal law. Stone may think it’s a state program, but he doesn’t have the authority to change it. I think it’s a good idea. We’d be for it if we could, but we just can’t do it.”

Stone said if the bill passes, it would include a revision that MDHS request a waiver from the federal government to change the law. If it passes, he said it would then go to the senate floor for a vote and eventually to Mississippi’s governor to veto or sign.

Stone said the deadline for revisions on the bill is the first week of March, and if signed by the governor, the law would go into effect on July 1.