MADISON — A Wisconsin state lawmaker wants food stamp users to eat healthier — whether they want to or not.
Rep. Dean Kaufert, a Republican from Neenah, would cut the use of food stamps on junk food. In other words, for people in FoodShare, the state’s nutrition assistance program, it’s out with the Cheetos, Coca-Cola and Suzy Qs and in with the leafy produce.
“The system is being abused,” Kaufert said. “Some people are not spending their benefits wisely.”
It’s an idea that’s been tried before with no success. States aren’t allowed to set their own definitions of what’s “healthy,” or “junk,” and Kaufert’s bill doesn’t actually name any products or food groups. The state also can’t change what FoodShare covers without a waiver from the federal government.
FoodShare uses federal money to help individuals and families buy almost any food they need other than alcohol, cigarettes, non-food items and restaurant meals. Eligible recipients include people of all ages who are employed but have low incomes, are living on small or fixed incomes, have lost their jobs, or have disabilities and can’t work.
Income eligibility is determined by federal poverty guidelines. In Wisconsin, a family of four that makes $3,676 or less a month can receive up to $668 in monthly aid. About 15 percent of Wisconsin’s population, or 850,000 people, got such benefits in January. Nearly half of them were children.
The food stamp program has come in for criticism before. Last year, the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau reported incidents of recipients selling state-issued benefit cards to others and applying for replacements. Officials also found prisoners, fugitives and parole violators illegally collecting benefits, costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Gov. Scott Walker has also looked for ways to reform the program. Under his latest workforce development plan, able-bodied adults without dependent children must have a job before they can collect more than very limited benefits.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie declined to comment on the bill, saying only that the governor would review it should it pass.
Fraud isn’t the focus of Kaufer’s brief bill. It essentially would require the Department of Human Services to develop a pilot program “that limits the use of FoodShare benefits to staple foods and beverages that have nutritional value.”
Cassandra Vanderwall, public policy coordinator for the Madison Dietetic Association and a registered dietitian, said restrictions on food stamp users’ food purchases are unfair. She said many don’t have access to grocery stores with a wide variety of food choices, and they can’t afford many foods that might be considered healthy. Food cost often determines what people buy, she said.
Vanderwall said the state should invest more in nutrition education.
Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit anti-hunger organization, said so many food products come onto the market each year that it’s challenging for governments to classify and update which foods are healthy.
Vollinger said states should instead use incentives to encourage healthy eating. She cited the success of a Massachusetts program where food stamp users earned 30 cents on every food-aid dollar when purchasing certain fruits and vegetables.