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story.lead_photo.caption Rep. Mary Bentley

A Perryville Republican wants to reduce Medicaid costs associated with covering obesity-related conditions, and she's taken aim at limiting junk food purchases by welfare recipients in one of the most obese states in the country.

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Should Arkansas food stamp recipients be limited in what junk food they can buy?

Rep. Mary Bentley filed House Bill 1035 last week to reduce what food stamp recipients are allowed to buy with their allotments.

Banning the use of food stamps for buying certain foods would require a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Commonly known as food stamps, these days ­recipients receive plastic cards to use at grocery stores and other retailers to buy food.

Food stamp recipients currently are barred from using the benefits to purchase alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, prepared foods and an assortment of other household items.

Bentley's bill, if enacted, directs the Arkansas Department of Human Services to request a federal waiver, although the USDA has never approved such a request previously. News outlets in other states, including Wisconsin and Maine, have reported similar attempts by legislatures to add Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program restrictions.

Bentley acknowledged the lack of precedent in seeking the restrictions, but said the state's chances of receiving an exemption are better under the incoming Republican administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump has not yet announced a nominee to lead the USDA.

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The proposed legislation has drawn the attention of Arkansas' retailers and soft-drink distributors, who said they have concerns that the bill will hurt their interests but still not save state or federal taxpayer money.

Already one business group, the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association, has met and agreed to oppose the bill.

Under the bill, food stamp recipients would not see a decrease in their benefits -- which are entirely paid with USDA Food and Nutrition Service dollars -- but they would be limited in what they could buy.

There were 174,839 Arkansans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in October, according to the Human Services Department. The program distributed $656,083,031 in federal dollars during fiscal 2015, according to the state Human Services Department.

Arkansas is the sixth-most-obese state in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which found 34.6 percent of Arkansas adults were obese. The groups had reported the year before that Arkansas was the most-obese state. The state has about 3 million people.

Up to 40 percent of the $1.25 billion spent in Arkansas annually on obesity-related health care costs are paid for by tax dollars though Medicaid and Medicare, according to Healthy Active Arkansas report, a 10-year state health plan released by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute of the University of Arkansas in October 2015.

The report was released to help state government agencies and other organizations develop solutions to lower the state's obesity rate.

Bentley's proposal doesn't specify what foods would be prohibited. The state Department of Human Services would come up with a list, using federal guidelines, after being granted a waiver, Bentley said.

But Bentley, recently re-elected to her second term in the House, said she has an idea of what foods would be considered junk.

"Chips and Cokes and candy bars," Bentley said. "People can go buy Red Bull with food stamps, and that's not encouraging health."

Most food stamp recipients pay a part of their grocery bill out of pocket, according to the USDA, which released a report in 2007 disputing the health benefits of restricting purchases paid for by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The federal agency did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Grocery stores are readily able to use checkout software to designate those categories of items as ineligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments, said Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association President Charlie Spakes. Prohibited items, or food expenditures over the allotted amount, can be paid for out of pocket.

But adding new restrictions to the roughly 300,000 products sold in modern supermarkets would be a hefty job to implement, especially for smaller family grocers, Spakes said.

"The task of evaluating the nutritional value of every food would be enormous," Spakes said, explaining how such a system could cause confusion. "Is it all chips or is it just a certain brand of chips? That's where it gets a lot harder for us to enforce."

The Grocers and Retail Merchants Political Action Committee supported the campaigns of 10 Republicans during the most recent election cycle, all but one of whom were elected to the General Assembly, according to campaign finance reports. The PAC generally gave $250 to each candidate, and itself received donations from Walgreens, Wal-Mart and Riceland Foods Inc.

ARBEV PAC, which represents soft-drink distributors in Arkansas, filed as a political action committee on Dec. 2, but has not reported any campaign expenditures.

Dennis Farmer, the resident agent of that political action committee, said the group has not taken a stance on Bentley's legislation and is working with other merchant groups to gauge the impact that the law might have.

"We've always fought bills that tried to separate out soft drinks, but this is the first time in Arkansas we're dealing with something bigger," Farmer said.

Gas stations, convenience stores and truck stops, represented by the Arkansas Oil Marketers Association, are also keeping an eye on Bentley's bill, said President Steve Ferren, who declined to state a position on it.

Bentley's bill will be up for consideration when the Legislature convenes in general session on Jan. 9.

SundayMonday on 12/11/2016

Print Headline: Bill on food stamps says no junk foods


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Archived Comments

  • Nodmcm
    December 11, 2016 at 5:50 a.m.

    This is an interesting Republican idea. We all know Republicans hate the poor, and want to spend as little as possible for their care and support. We also know that Republicans gave Michelle Obama, the First Lady, all kinds of grief over her ideas about forcing school lunches to be more nutritious, with less fat and sugar and more vegetables. So Republicans are for "food freedom of choice," or are "pro-food-choice," for children of the wealthy or middle-class, but when it comes to the poor, well, things change, since the Republicans hate them so much (who likes the poor anyway, except liberals and Jesus). So all of a sudden, to save money, its time to take away food choice, so now the Republicans will become the "food Nazis." I am wondering when Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, in his quest to eliminate Medicare (Social Security will be next), will begin talking about setting up DEATH PANELS, so old folks can be "euthanized" rather than spend megabucks on expensive end-of-life medical treatments. My, how the worm turns.

  • Jfish
    December 11, 2016 at 6:19 a.m.

    Actually Nod she is trying to improve their health, but everything is a partisan conspiracy according to you. I seriously doubt this will pass because the bottom line for the convenience stores, truck stops, etc., is making money with their 500% markup on sodas, chips and candy bars, and they probably have a pretty strong lobby.

  • RaylanGivens
    December 11, 2016 at 7:16 a.m.

    NOD is so funny; his/her whole life is a big conspiracy!

  • PopMom
    December 11, 2016 at 7:20 a.m.

    This should be a nonpartisan issue. SNAP should not pay for junk food, and Congress should change what can be purchased.

  • doyoucare15
    December 11, 2016 at 7:57 a.m.

    Any of the politicians involved in pursuing this bill should not fall into the obesity category themselves.

  • Whippersnapper
    December 11, 2016 at 8:08 a.m.

    This is about what is being done using tax dollars, not personal funds. The Obama mess tried to mandate what people could buy with their own money, which is a huge difference. The government ought to worry about how tax dollars are spent, and ought not to worry about what people do with their private dollars.

  • GeneralMac
    December 11, 2016 at 10:27 a.m.

    When you want the govt to feed your family, of course there should be restrictions.
    I have seen this topic discussed in the past and you always hear a group saying that poor people "deserve" to splurge on items like lobster and a prepared birthday cake.

    When it is your own money ,you can decide what you "deserve"
    When you apply for govt money to feed your family, you have given up your "right" to indulge in luxuries.

  • FayFan
    December 11, 2016 at 10:49 a.m.

    There is a huge disconnect when one program (food stamps) uses public funds to subsidize an unhealthy diet that leads to obesity and diabetes, and another (Arkansas Works) subsidizes health insurance coverage for those same people. Anyone with a logical mind sees the obvious causality and folly in this situation. Powerful players may use the argument of "choice" to support the status quo but the continued feeding of unhealthy junk to the poor only hurts the poor and impoverishes the programs intended to help them.
    I would sincerely hope that Rep. Bentley finds support from those legislators who are reshaping Arkansas Works and that they unite efforts to make the necessary changes in both programs so that healthy choices are promoted and rewarded, and so that food stamps and Arkansas Works can become sustainable and fiscally responsible with our public tax dollars.

  • Skeptic1
    December 11, 2016 at 11:09 a.m.

    Recipients of government services should be randomly drug tested and if they test positive ordered into rehab and monitored before they get the services back. Many sell their food stamps for drugs, that is a known fact and has been for years. How is the government going to control what people buy, it would place a huge burden on merchants that would then be food police. Yet another politician advancing a folly not thought through.

  • bfe71730
    December 11, 2016 at 11:15 a.m.

    food stamps should be limited to staples, no prime cuts of meat, snack cakes, potato chips, ect, nothing they can resale to get cash for drugs and alcohol. watch food prices go down when this happens.