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'Junk food' proposal relied on complicated list of allowable foods

A 2013 bill that would have limited choices under the state Food Shares program faced opposition last year from the food industry and others. The bill would have restricted purchases to those allowed under the federal Women, Infants & Children nutrition program. But that program does not allow using benefits to buy products including organic or frozen brown rice, sharp cheddar cheese, organic orange juice or peanut butter with honey.

Assembly Republicans want to limit government food aid used to buy junk food while acknowledging they will likely need to overcome opposition from powerful business groups and the federal government to do it.

Limiting the types of food that could be purchased with taxpayer-funded assistance is among several broad proposals to promote “self sufficiency” — including drug testing everyone receiving unemployment assistance and food stamps — that Assembly Republicans plan to pursue in the session that begins in January.

State Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said he knows the food industry and retailers were strongly opposed to a bill that failed to make it through the last legislative session.

And Born acknowledged that any changes likely would run afoul of longstanding U.S. Department of Agriculture rules.

“I think any of these bills on welfare reform are going to be difficult to pass — otherwise, they would’ve been done already,” said Born, chairman of the newly created Public Benefit Reform Committee.

But Born said he thinks taxpayers are tired of seeing their hard-earned dollars spent on unhealthy food.

“These programs are meant to help people make it through a difficult time and provide food for families and, in some cases, individuals,” Born said. “It’s just trying to get the people on government assistance programs to use them for what they were intended for.”

In the last legislative session, a junk food bill failed to make it to the Senate floor after passing the Assembly on a bipartisan vote of 68-26.

The measure faced opposition from the food industry and retailers as well as social-service groups. In all, opponents reported spending more than 800 hours lobbying lawmakers to reject the proposal, according to the Government Accountability Board. There was no organized group supporting it.

That bill would have required two-thirds of a monthly food stamp allotment to be spent on items from a list of healthy foods. It also would have created a pilot program to ban benefit recipients from buying items such as chips and soda with FoodShare benefits.

Retailers and grocers argued the bill would impose costly and cumbersome burdens on store owners and clerks. In addition, there were questions about whether the USDA, which funds Wisconsin’s FoodShare program, would allow the state to impose more restrictions on recipients.

The Wisconsin Grocers Association spent the most time lobbying in opposition to the bill. The group’s president and CEO, Brandon Scholz, said the proposal would have cost stores “tens of millions of dollars” to upgrade software. Grocers would have had to divide charges on FoodShare debit cards, known as Quest cards, from two accounts: healthy and not-so-healthy.

It also could have led to longer grocery lines. Currently, there is a short list of what items cannot be paid for with Quest cards: Alcohol, cigarettes, non-food items including pet food, food intended to be eaten at the store and hot food.

On its website, USDA notes that there are hundreds of thousands of food items — with thousands more being added each year — and deciding which ones are healthy would be a monumental task.

“The task of identifying, evaluating and tracking the nutritional profile of every food available for purchase would be substantial,” the agency says.

Scholz said the 2013 bill would have turned clerks into “food police.” However, Scholz, former executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said he is willing to work with Republicans who control the Legislature to see what could be done to encourage healthier purchases by those getting government food assistance.

“It’s not a stupid idea,” Scholz said. “It’s what can be done practically, and at what cost?”

USDA rules

Changing the definition of allowable foods also would require action by Congress. Born said he’s had discussions with U.S. Rep.-elect Glenn Grothman about pushing for changes at the federal level. As a state senator, Grothman has been an outspoken critic of public benefit programs, saying they lead to government dependence and single parenthood, among other problems.

The USDA has vetoed two other states’ efforts for much narrower restrictions.

The agency rejected Minnesota’s proposal to ban soda and candy from the list of acceptable food items in 2004, and in 2011, it rejected New York’s proposal to exclude soda.

Scholz said he doubts the federal government would grant a waiver to Wisconsin.

“The state cannot arbitrarily, unilaterally decide to change this,” he said.

Legal Action of Wisconsin, which serves poor clients, said it opposes efforts to further restrict what can be purchased with FoodShare benefits.

“This proposal will result mainly in a bellyache for Wisconsin’s retailers and grocers who will have to spend the time and money to sift through their customers’ grocery carts to comply with whatever the law’s definition of ‘nutritious’ is,” said Vicky Selkowe, legislative director for Legal Action.

“Our clients tell us that a far bigger hurdle to their purchasing healthy food are the facts that their low-income neighborhoods are food deserts, and that the jobs they work at don’t pay enough for them to afford healthier food.”

Born said his sense is most Wisconsinites favor requiring that taxpayer-funded food assistance be used to buy nutritious food.

“People support the idea,” he said. “It’s just whether or not we can find a way to accomplish the goal.”

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