After public hearings, DHEC sticks with its suggestion on food stamp restrictions

jholleman@thestate.comJune 17, 2013 

Nutritionist Laura Stepp explains how to eat healthy and stay on a budget. Is healthy food more expensive than junk food? That's one of the arguments against using food stamp restrictions to encourage healthier eating. People on food stamps already struggle to feed their families. Making them buy more expensive food would worsen the situation. Or would it?


After hearing all the pros and cons during several months of public input, the state health department has recommended that South Carolina apply for a waiver to ban the use of food stamps for sugary drinks, candy, cookies and cakes.

The SC Department of Health and Environmental Control stated its position in a letter sent Monday from director Catherine Templeton to Lillian Koller, director of the state Department of Social Services. Koller’s department administers the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and will determine the content of a waiver request.

Koller said the DHEC recommendation is one piece of input in the decision. Her agency also will consider other informed viewpoints and the mood for change at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls the program.

“We’re looking at options and we’re preparing to make a request that will improve the health of South Carolinians,” Koller said. “But it’s premature to talk about what the options are.”

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has received three food stamp waiver requests – from Minnesota, Mississippi and New York City. Minnesota asked for a full waiver on candy and soft drinks, and New York City sought a demonstration project banning soft drinks. The feds turned down their requests as too broad and unworkable. Mississippi withdrew its request before the feds could rule on it.

Several other states have discussed waivers, either through legislation or through requests from social service agencies. But none of those waiver ideas has advanced far enough for federal consideration.

Restrictions would have a major impact in South Carolina, where 878,000 residents receive $1.4 billion in food stamps. The state also has among the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity-related cancers.

With those statistics in mind, Koller, Templeton and Gov. Nikki Haley early this year said South Carolina will seek some form of waiver to restrict food stamp use for foods deemed harmful to health. DHEC held a series of public meetings on the topic and sought input via letters and email. Templeton weighed that public input in her letter.

“While challenges no doubt exist, what we have is the makings of a plan that gets the fundamentals right,” Templeton wrote. “Based on comments we received, the fundamentals of a workable waiver should focus the eligible food list on staples like meat, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Accessory food items like sugar-added drinks, candy, cookies and cakes should be excluded.”

In an interview, Templeton acknowledged the basics of her waiver request are similar to what she suggested before the input process began.

“At the public meetings, 95 percent of the criticism had to do with poverty, not with SNAP, not with nutrition,” Templeton said.

The food stamp program was supposed to supplement food budgets, not pay for items such as toilet paper, as one speaker suggested at the Columbia public meeting, Templeton said.

Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, believes any waiver that restricts what can be purchased with food stamps will cause harm than good.

“One in 5 people in S.C. are going hungry,” Berkowitz said. “Instead of addressing this issue, the DHEC director focuses on restricting what people can purchase with SNAP rather than seeking a way to help increase the way SNAP beneficiaries could increase their purchase power of healthy food. That is a political solution, not one addressing healthy eating.”

Among the arguments against restrictions in what can be bought with food stamps are:

•  There are no clear standards for defining foods as healthy or not healthy.

•  Enacting food restrictions would make a huge program even more complex and costly.

•  Healthy foods cost more.

Templeton uses the federal government-approved Women, Infants and Children food program as the answer to the first two concerns. That program has strict standards met by only a small percentage of grocery products, but it works for recipients and participating stores.

Health officials also insist healthy foods don’t have to be more expensive, but it does require more time to prepare inexpensive, unprocessed foods.

Templeton’s waiver suggestion is more restrictive than either of the requests turned down in recent years by the USDA. But she said her own conversations with federal officials have convinced her the mood on food stamp waivers to improve health is changing.

“With Mrs. Obama’s push for healthy eating in schools, this may be a time to change (the attitude toward waivers),” Templeton said. “It will be very hypocritical of the Obama administration to not support a change.”

S.C. and federal officials already have begun communicating about a potential request from South Carolina. Koller said the key is reading the federal agency’s policy statements to see where the opening for a change might be.

One question is whether to seek a full waiver or a demonstration project. “Those are different animals,” Koller said. “Part of what we’re trying to figure out is which is best for us.”

The goal is to have a request ready to send to the feds by the end of the year, Koller said.

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