COLUMBIA — In the hope that restricting what people can buy with food stamps will cut down on obesity, South Carolina officials on Thursday said they had asked the federal agency that administers the program to start discussing ways to change it.
Currently, about 878,000 people in South Carolina receive about $1.4 billion in benefits each year through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Department of Social Services director Lillian Koller told participants at an obesity meeting in Columbia. That program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Koller said she had written to federal officials to ask them for a conversation about ways to change how the program is used in South Carolina.
“That’s a lot of federal dollars in our state,” Koller said. “We need to make it work for South Carolinians, to help us make better choices and have lots and lots of healthy food options.”
Because SNAP is a federal program, Koller would need USDA permission to make any changes to it or place restrictions on purchases made here. Currently, alcohol and tobacco products are the only prohibited items, but Koller said she planned to ask the federal government for a waiver to cut the list of allowed items in South Carolina to healthy purchases. Starting next month, a series of meetings will be held around the state to solicit public input on how the program should be changed.
Gov. Nikki Haley and Department of Health and Environmental Control director Catherine Templeton were also part of the announcement, which is the latest in a series of efforts to address obesity. Last week, she and Koller unveiled the ABC Grow Healthy program, which falls under a DSS initiative that pays for low-income families to get care for kids through age 12 while the parents work or go to school or job training. ABC Grow Healthy uses $200,000 in federal funding to help young children learn how to make good food choices and enjoy exercise.
“More than cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke or any other disease in this state, obesity kills the most South Carolinians,” said Templeton, who previously told The Associated Press she supports restricting SNAP benefits to the essentially same list of milk, grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables that her agency uses for a benefit program for women and children.
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, and officials said the state is forecast to have the nation’s fifth-highest obesity rate by 2030.
If allowed to pursue a waiver, South Carolina would be the only state to do so. 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.
Dr. Marion Burton of the state Department of Health and Human Services also said at Thursday’s meeting that the state would now officially classify obesity as a disease, something he said would allow health care providers to treat it more directly and allow coverage from Medicaid benefits.
“It is a public problem,” Burton said.