GREEN BAY - A state Assembly committee Tuesday approved a bill that would limit how much junk food you could buy using food stamps.
This affects those who are enrolled in the state's nutrition assistance program.
Under the proposal, at least two-thirds of the monthly benefits would have to be spent on "staple products." Things like milk, break, and vegetables.
But should the government play a role in what we buy at the grocery store? It's a plan that affects all taxpayers.
Every month in Wisconsin some 840,000 low-income residents are given money from the federal government to buy food. It’s part of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program called SNAP.
In Wisconsin, it goes by the name FoodShare. But the items that end up being paid for with your tax dollars are oftentimes anything but nutritious.
"It's the volume of chips, the volume of snacks, the volume of sodas," said State Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah) in pushing the legislation. "Even the grocery store owners will say there's a lot of abuse, there's a lot of bad decision making."
Kaufert is on a mission to promote healthier eating by those receiving assistance from taxpayers. He is pushing through a bill in the Legislature that would require FoodShare dollars be spent on foods and beverages that have nutritional value. Off-limits would be things like cookies, candies and potato chips.
Those being helped out by the program say Kaufert's bill is leaving them with a bad taste.
"I think people should be able to choose for themselves, you know? I don't think that's fair," said Quintella Williams, a FoodShare recipient.
"If they change it to not buying soda or candy - it's the mother, who is preparing the food, that decides if they buy that," said FoodShare recipient Maritza Nazario.
"There are some people out there who say, ‘Why should you, the Legislature, dictate what I'm going to eat?’" FOX 11 reporter Mark Leland asked Kaufert.
"It's a good question. It's simple. These are taxpayer dollars," explained Kaufert.
We're talking about more than $1 billion spent last year in Wisconsin on food with taxpayer money.
Initially, Kaufert wanted to eliminate all soda and junk food from the items that can be purchased on the FoodShare program. But resistance from the soda and snack food industries now has the bill allowing a limited amount of these items.
"People who seem to have heartburn right now are the grocers, the soda company and snack company. They've hired lobbyists to fight this Pepsi, FritoLay," said Kaufert.
Pepsi Company officials did not respond to a request for comment concerning Kaufert's bill, that if passed could cost the company plenty.
The Wisconsin Grocers Association also has problems with the legislation. FOX 11 was able to track down the president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association following a closed door meeting with local grocers discussing the impact of the legislation.
"When you have a change in a program like this there are other factors other than just saying this is great. So we're looking at the process and the cost," said Brandon Scholz, president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association.
FoodShare recipients are issued a debit-like card. Qualifying foods and amounts would have to be programmed into each store's system. Grocers would like the state to cover any computer programming and labor costs associated with changes.
"We believe that's a fair case to be made. If it doesn't happen who's going to pay for it? You probably will as a customer," said Scholz.
Kaufert says he has been willing to compromise, taking into account the needs of grocers and the companies that stock their shelves.
But it's estimated that nationally those on food stamps buy $4 billion a year in soda alone. And critics say that comes with added taxpayer costs.
"Put it this way, that $4 billion probably doesn't even touch the amount of medical care needed from the contribution to obesity, to diabetes, heart disease to cancers," said taxpayer Patrick Flynn. "And if you look at that we're spending $2 trillion on healthcare, that $4 billion is one fraction that contributes to a larger, bigger pool.”
Flynn promotes good nutrition and healthy living at his clinics in Howard, Appleton, Waukesha and Tampa, Fla. As a taxpayer, he agrees FoodShare dollars should be spent on more nutritious foods. He's in favor of personal choice, but says bad decisions are being made that affect everybody.
"I've actually seen people turn around buy potato chips, cereal, candy bars at a gas station then turn around and pay cash for their cigarettes and alcohol," said Flynn.
"Those same folks are on our medical assistance program. So if they don't use the food stamps wisely, then you and I as taxpayers end up paying for them again with the healthcare system," said Kaufert.
"I buy soda, and meat," said Williams.
Williams says her shopping cart is filled with the same things others, who are not on the program, are buying. Although she admits she too has seen some spend their FoodShare dollars on junk food.
"I know a lot of women with kids. They buy a lot of junk, lot of sweets and cereal, stuff like that," said Williams. "I don't think they know better. I think they should buy them more healthy foods."
Kaufert's plan would force better nutrition on those in the program.
"I am the one who is supposed to get that decision, not anybody else," said Nazario.
The federal government had considered imposing nutritional guidelines nationwide in the past, but dismissed it, indicating it would be too costly and difficult to sort out. If Wisconsin approves the idea and gets permission to proceed by the federal government, it would be the first state in the country to do so. And could set the stage for other states to follow.
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