At a forum Thursday set up to hear what kinds of restrictions the public might suggest for food stamps, the resounding message was: None.
Gov. Nikki Haley believes limiting the purchase of some fatty and high-sugar items with food stamps could improve the health of food stamp recipients and reduce health care costs in the state.
At the forum Thursday night at the Richland County office building, only two people suggested there should be any new limitations. About two dozen pleaded for state leaders not to further restrict what they can buy. Many suggested expanding the food stamp eligibility list to include essential products such as toilet paper.
“When you go grocery shopping, the prices are high, and some of the healthy foods are even higher,” said Shanelle Johnson, a food stamp recipient from Columbia. “There has to be other alternatives” for slowing the obesity epidemic.
Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, broached the subject of food stamp restrictions last year as part of her campaign against obesity. Lillian Koller, director of the S.C. Department of Social Services, which manages the food stamp program, agreed that the concept had merit.
Thursday’s meeting was the first of four scheduled throughout the state to receive public input to help shape the waiver request required for any change in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps.
At the start, Templeton asked the participants to let the state’s health leaders know “how changes might affect you, and how you want it changed.”
A registered dietitian from Camden and a school teacher from Columbia were the only speakers to call for limitations, citing the possible health benefits for the food stamp recipients who avoid items such as chips and soda.
Those who spoke against restrictions offered some constructive suggestions, such as expanding programs that double food stamp value at farmers markets, beefing up nutritional education programs and encouraging more food stores in underserved areas referred to as food deserts.
“Go back to the drawing board,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “Rather than asking to limit choices, rather than grandstanding and making people political pawns, you should be addressing problems. Don’t penalize poor people because they don’t have a choice.”
Cobb-Hunter and others in the Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement Thursday against food stamp limitations.
About 878,000 people in the state rely on food stamps to pay at least a portion of their grocery bills. They qualify based on a sliding scale of income and family size. The benefits max out at about $35 per person per week. Food stamps can be used to purchase just about any consumable food product, with the exception of alcohol, cigarettes, live animals and hot food prepared to be eaten at the store.
Any new restrictions would have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In recent years, several states have started the waiver process, but only two restrictive waivers made it all the way to being considered by the feds – one from Minnesota in 2004 limiting candy and soft drinks and one from New York City in 2009 limiting soft drinks. Both were turned down.
The feds say there are no clear standards for defining foods as healthy or not healthy, and enacting food restrictions would make a huge program even more complex and costly. The only waivers they have approved have involved encouraging the purchase of healthful foods. One pilot project increases the value of food stamps used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
Templeton described the meeting as productive even if “a lot of the concerns I heard really don’t have anything to do with SNAP, they had more to do with the larger problem of poverty and hunger in South Carolina.”
Templeton said comments sent in via email and phone are more balanced for and against a request for restrictions. She’s confident at the end of the public comment process some form of waiver will be requested.