DOVER — Republican-backed legislation would limit food stamps to explicitly healthy foods, but the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services stands in opposition to the proposal.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as the food stamp program, provides a source of money for families to purchase foods. Prepared foods typically are excluded.
The state provided aid to about 151,000 people in fiscal year 2014, a steep increase from the pre-recession years: 72,000 individuals received SNAP benefits in fiscal year 2008. Approximately $224 million worth of food stamps was issued in fiscal year 2014.
The benefits are overseen by the Division of Social Services, a unit of DHSS.
House Bill 94 would require the department make a list of approved nutritional foods, which would be the only items available for purchase using food stamps.
The lead sponsor, Rep. Daniel Short, R-Seaford, believes the proposal not only would make Delawareans healthier but also save the state money.
Eating nutritional foods can help prevent many harmful conditions, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, which in turn means the government has to spend less down the line in terms of Medicare, Medicaid and other services.
Citing the recent attention placed on having healthy school meals, Rep. Short said those practices should not end when the school bell rings.
“This is just mirroring what we already do and what we teach our kids in schools and we’re putting that same emphasis on that outside of the school and asking parents to kind of go into that realm of what the kids are dealing with in the schools,” he said. “So I think it’s a very simple thing, it makes a lot of sense, it’s coordination of an effort to change the lifestyle so we have a healthier approach top-down.”
Children who are taught the importance of avoiding sugary and fattening foods during the day may face confusion when they go home and find their parents serving them junk food, he said.
An identical version was introduced last year, but it was tabled in committee.
DHSS did not approve of that proposal and opposes House Bill 94 this time around.
“Evidence does not support that SNAP recipients’ diets are any poorer than people not on SNAP,” said Ray Fitzgerald, deputy director of the Division of Social Services.
Using food stamps is for many people an embarrassing endeavor, with the beneficiaries typically preferring to make their purchases quickly and get out of the waiting line so as to avoid feeling ashamed, he said. Restricting the program would make it more complex and potentially humiliating for recipients, Mr. Fitzgerald believes. Buyers could bring items up to checkout only to have them rejected for not falling on the list of approved foods.
Additionally, people living in “food deserts” — areas without any nearby supermarkets — would be harmed by the bill, he said. Recipients may not have a car, meaning they typically only shop at places close by, and if there are no grocery stores within walking distance, the users would have to resort to convenience stores or other venues that may not have many approved items.
The department has another practical concern.
“Evaluating and tracking the nutritional food profile of every food item available for purchase in the market would be an enormous undertaking,” Mr. Fitzgerald noted.
Simply creating a definition for healthy and unhealthy foods would be extremely difficult and time-consuming, he said, as officials would have to consider a number of factors. Determining how to weigh the fat, sodium, protein and other ingredients in foods would be a key consideration.
Rep. Short said he did not understand the lack of support from DHSS, arguing the inconsistency from school to home in terms of what’s provided for meals can perplex children.
Because the federal government supplies SNAP funds, the bill still would have to be approved by the federal Department of Agriculture if it passes the General Assembly. That, Rep. Short acknowledged, is not a mere formality.
Although Wisconsin and South Carolina are working on similar bills, no states have passed legislation like this, according to DHSS. That means the Department of Agriculture would be setting a precedent if it grants a waiver to Delaware, and Rep. Short thinks federal officials would be reluctant to provide approval.
Despite his doubts, he remains confident the bill would benefit Delawareans.
“There’s no reason to say just because it hasn’t been implemented elsewhere consistently we can’t do it in Delaware,” he said. “Delaware would be a good pilot state.”