COLUMBIA — Putting restrictions on what people can buy with food stamps might be a way to cut down on South Carolina's growing obesity problem, the state's public health chief said Wednesday.
“I'm rather astonished that nobody has ever proposed it,” Department of Health and Environmental Control director Catherine Templeton told The Associated Press. “This is just a tiny part of the obesity epidemic.”
Templeton's agency administers Women, Infants and Children, a federally funded program that helps pregnant women and mothers buy healthy food and covers about 130,000 in South Carolina. Under WIC, beneficiaries are limited to a list of purchases that includes items like milk, grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
It's that basic model that Templeton would like to see used for food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those SNAP benefits, which are also federally funded, are administered in South Carolina by the Department of Social Services. Aside from banning purchases of alcohol and tobacco, the benefits have no other limitations on consumable goods.
“The state of South Carolina would use the WIC list for SNAP recipients. Period. That would solve so many of the empty calorie issues,” Templeton said. “We already do it at DHEC for children up to age 4. Why don't you expand that for households up to 17?”
At least 30 percent of South Carolina adults are considered obese, according to a 2011 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure ties the state with Indiana for the seventh-highest obesity rate in the nation.
About 875,000 South Carolinians get benefits under the SNAP program, according to DSS. Agency officials said that number, which was about 630,000 in 2008, typically fluctuates with the state's unemployment rate.
Templeton said she doesn't support banning junk food or super-sized soft drinks and has already fielded criticism from industry groups concerned about possible dips in sales. But, she argued, public money shouldn't be used to buy unhealthy items.
“Should the government be the food police? Absolutely not,” Templeton said. “Eat what you want to eat. But the taxpayers shouldn't pay for it.”
But South Carolina would need federal permission to put those restrictions in place because SNAP benefits are funded by federal dollars. And it would be up to the state's social services department, not the health agency led by Templeton, to make such a request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that funds the program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has rejected at least one such proposal before – in 2011, it refused a waiver request that would have allowed New York City to ban using food stamps to buy sugary drinks, such as sodas.
DSS officials didn't immediately comment Wednesday on Templeton's ideas. But the DHEC director said she had discussed the issues with DSS Director Lillian Koller and felt she had her support.
“I feel very confident that DSS will ask for a waiver,” Templeton said. “I know they're trying to determine if there's more or different that they want to ask for.”