Despite GOP Split, Bill Banning Purchase Of Junk Food With Food Stamps Advances

Jan 30, 2017

The Arkansas House advanced a restriction on food stamps, or SNAP, that would ban the purchase of junk food.

If approved by the federal government, the measure would make Arkansas the first state to ban the purchase of junk food with food stamps. 

In what was an unusually close vote for the chamber, 55-39, state Representative Mary Bentley of Perryville pushed through her bill.

“In 1971, my parents got divorced. My siblings and I and my mother recieved a block of cheese, some  peanut butter, some rice and beans that were received as commodities. They certainly kept us from going hungry,” said Bentley. “Today’s food stamps recipients receive an EBT card much like a credit card that they can use to purchase whatever food they’d like.”

Bentley reiterated three main arguments she made in committee earlier in the month: restricting junk foods will improve personal health of Arkansans; healthier residents will help curb $1.25 billion in state spending related to obesity; and selling SNAP cards will be less desirable.

Opposition to Bentley’s bill came from both the Democratic minority and her own party. Representative Laurie Rushing of Hot Springs also spoke from personal experience.

“If it had not been for these benefits,” said Rushing, “I would have had to deny my child a birthday cake. My child was not obese. I was not abusing the system as I believe most who use the program are not abusing the system.”

Fellow Republican Jim Rye, of Trumann in east Arkansas, argued it could lead to a loss in revenue for grocers and convenience stores operating near the state’s border. Democratic Minority Leader Michael John Gray of Augusta also mentioned that grocers and merchants have come out against the proposal fearing the cost of implementation.

Democratic Minority Leader Michael John Gray of Augusta (left) speaking to reporters. File photo 2017.
Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

But Gray’s argument was fundamentally that education not restriction is the key to healthy eating, “I don’t think this bill incentivizes healthy eating. I think this bill punishes poor eating.” He suggested making dollars worth more for healthy food purchases or at farmers markets.

Gray tried to reach across the aisle on a tough political issue, “I’ve been there, I’ve been in a convenience store in line to buy unhealthy items and someone in front of me bought four 20 ounces and a couple honey buns and paid for it with a card. I’ve had that frustration, I get it. But I’ve also seen carts full of bulk items to feed families.”

The bill directs the state Department of Health to create an approved food list, defining junk food based on WIC standards. Republican State Rep. Jana Della Rosa of Rogers opposed the bill for that reason.  She said it was leaving too much authority to the state bureaucracy.

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, a Republican from Elm Springs, said legislators needed to make tax payers the first priority. She said single mothers and factory workers shouldn’t be paying for SNAP beneficiaries to get junk food.

To go into effect the bill would need to pass the Arkansas Senate and have a first in the nation waiver approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The legislature in Maine is seeking a similar waiver from federal officials.