MADISON, Wis. — The state should not tell people who receive food stamps what they can or can’t eat, representatives from food companies, grocery stores and food banks told Wisconsin lawmakers during a Tuesday hearing at the Capitol.
They spoke in response to legislation introduced last month by Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, to reduce the amount of food stamps spent on junk food. Kaufert wants to limit the portion of benefits people can use to buy items such as potato chips and soda. His bill, however, does not identify any specific foods and would essentially require the state Department of Health Services to develop a pilot program to meet that goal.
Kaufert has said he wants to promote healthy eating among participants in FoodShare, the state’s nutrition assistance program, but those who testified said it would shame participants and burden businesses.
Brandon Scholz, president of Wisconsin Grocers Association, said that allowing the state to decide which foods are healthy and which aren’t would open the door to potential product placement requirements, bans and taxes. He also said it could lead to embarrassing and even contentious moments when cashiers have to tell people what they can’t buy.
Alicia Pavelski, administrative coordinator at Heartland Farms Inc., which grows potatoes and vegetables, said the bill would unfairly stigmatize chips as junk food. About a quarter of the potatoes grown at the farm where she works in central Wisconsin go to chip makers each year. She noted that potatoes are high in certain vitamins.
“They are not completely junk, even in the form of chips,” Pavelski said.
Gina Wilson, director of agency services and programs at Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, said many food stamp users already have limited access to large grocery stores, and she feared the bill would unfairly label those people as unable to make good food choices.
“There is no wide standard to judge the healthfulness of individual foods,” Wilson said. “Limiting the choices for the food people can purchase would only raise that stigma.”
FoodShare uses federal money to help low-income individuals and families buy almost any food but not alcohol, cigarettes or restaurant meals. About 15 percent of Wisconsin’s population, or 850,000 people, got such benefits in February.
The program has been criticized amid reports of participants selling their benefit cards and applying for free replacements.
Kevin Moore, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said the department received hundreds of complaints about the misuse of benefits in February and suspended 17 people from the program. He said Kaufert’s bill would help the department better identify and prevent such problems.
Kaufert said he also has heard stories about participants buying large bags of chips, packs of soda and expensive tenderloins, which he said are not appropriate.
“If it’s your money, you can spend on whatever you want,” Kaufert said. “We’re just hoping to help families make better purchasing decisions.”
But opponents of his bill said that instead of blacklisting certain foods, the state should use incentives to encourage people to buy more fruit and vegetables and invest in nutrition education.
“Rather than creating hurdles, the state should make healthy food more affordable to FoodShare users,” Wilson added.
The bill’s prospects in the Legislature are unclear. It was originally scheduled for a committee vote on Thursday, but it has since been removed from the agenda.