The Arkansas House voted in favor of legislation Monday to enact a ban on junk-food purchases using food stamps.
The 55-39 vote for passage of House Bill 1035 overcame a split from Republicans, many of whom voiced concerns that businesses would bear the costs of enforcement, and dissent from Democrats, who argued the legislation unfairly targeted poor families.
Opponents of the bill said food-stamp recipients need more education and incentives to begin eating healthier, not more limitations on their grocery lists.
But health education programs have been running for years, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, and have not helped Arkansas shed its status as one of the nation's fattest states.
"I find no compassion in providing things that cause diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke and large health care bills down the road," Bentley said.
As much as 40 percent of Arkansas' $1.25 billion annual obesity-related health care tab is picked up by taxpayers through Medicaid and Medicare, according to a 2015 report by the University of Arkansas System's Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
Dubbed the Healthy Food Improvement Act, Bentley's bill directs the state Department of Health to develop a list of foods with "sufficient nutritional value." Food-stamp recipients would be unable to purchase foods not on the list with their benefits, the amount of which would remain unchanged.
Both Democrats and Republicans speaking against the bill said it failed to take into account the considerations that go into the eating habits of the 398,749 Arkansans receiving food stamps, as of the latest Department of Human Services count in October. The cost per person is about $110 a month, or $44 million total per month.
Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said families with tight budgets purchase soda instead of milk because it is cheaper and does not spoil.
And some families like the rare splurge for special occasions, even if they are otherwise thrifty, said Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs. That was the case, Rushing said, when she was a single mother using food stamps to purchase her daughter's birthday cake after the death of her husband. She said she stayed on the program for about a year.
Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, speaking against the bill, said: "I don't think this bill incentivizes healthy eating, I think it punishes people for poor eating."
In explaining the rationale behind her bill, Bentley has cited the availability of mass-produced drinks -- such as Coke and energy drinks -- in contrast with staples such as milk, eggs and beans.
She pointed to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that found "sweetened beverages" accounted for nearly a dime out of every dollar spent through food stamps, or about 2 cents more than other households.
After passing the House, one of the bill's supporters, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, moved successfully for the House to adopt a "clincher" motion, making it harder for the House to reconsider the bill.
Pitching her legislation to members of the Conservative Caucus last week, Bentley said she expected a tough fight in the 35-member Senate, where she said business interests have been lobbying against the proposal.
Grocers opposed to the legislation have told lawmakers in committee that their businesses will bear the cost of implementing new software to screen prohibited foods, and will lose customers who will hop state lines to purchase their groceries without the restrictions.
Another hurdle in enacting any new food-stamp restrictions will be obtaining a waiver from the USDA, which administers the benefit program, called the Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program. The total cost of the benefits is paid for with federal funds.
The federal agency has never approved a junk-food ban.
A Section on 01/31/2017
Print Headline: Food-stamp no-no clears state House; Senate, USDA still junk-food hurdles