Food stamp eligible Easter basket causes controversy

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 Food stamp eligible Easter basket causes controversy story image
STATEWIDE (WGME) - Some lawmakers here in Maine and in Washington are pushing to change what food stamp recipients can buy with the program's benefits. We started looking into the issue after we got a picture from a viewer of an Easter basket for sale with candy and dress up toys marked "EBT Eligible."

With the controversy around the $10 Easter basket, we hit the streets to ask people in Portland what they think of a proposed rule change that would restrict purchases under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We found strong opinions on both sides.

"They need to buy essentials and this is not essential for good nourishment," one man told us.

"I mean we're working for that. We're giving our money to help people who say they have a true need and can't feed their children or family, and I'm all for that if it's a true need. These are extras in life, these are not needs," another woman told us.

SNAP bans some extras: prepared foods, alcohol, beer, cigarettes, and non-food items. But soda, candy, and cookies are all eligible.

The Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, confirms this holiday basket is also eligible because the value of the food is worth more than the value of the basket itself, the bow, and the small toy.

"I think if you don't have the money to be able to buy stuff like that for your kids, you should be able to get them something for Easter; it's their holiday, too," another person in Portland commented.

It's a question that's seen a lot of debate in Maine and Washington. At the State House, Governor LePage and State Senator Roger Katz (R-Augusta) wanted to cut the fat from food stamps by banning junk food from the program.

"It's the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This stuff is absolutely junk food and we're not doing anybody a favor by allowing people to use taxpayer dollars to buy this kind of stuff, and it doesn't have any nutrition in it," Sen. Katz said.

The bill didn't make it far. A legislative committee instead ordered a work group to promote healthy eating habits. Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland) says this is really a federal issue. The state would have to ask for a waiver that would let the state make junk food off limits with SNAP benefits.

"We want programs to help families and children and if the federal government is going to give us a waiver, or if we apply, and we got the waiver, let's have that discuss." Sen. Alfond said.

A waiver is unlikely to happen. The government rejected former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's request. He tried to stop food stamp users from buying soda and other sugary drinks with SNAP benefits. The federal government pointed to a 2007 report which says, "No clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy."

Bloomberg argued, we all know what's nutritious and what's not.

"If you ask the public taxpayer to give you money that was designated to improve your health - to give you more nutritious food - and more of it, then it shouldn't be used for things that are not nutritious," Bloomberg said in 2012.

There's now a proposal in the House of Representatives by two congressmen, who are also doctors. They want to align the snap program with the Women, Infant, and Children program, which would remove junk food from SNAP. Right now the bill is in a congressional committee. Food stamp eligible Easter basket causes controversy
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