AUGUSTA, Maine — A bid to prohibit the purchase of junk food with food stamps in Maine came out of a legislative committee Monday afternoon with a positive recommendation — twice.
In an unusual series of events, Republican Sen. Roger Katz’s bill, LD 526, heads to the full Legislature after having been approved twice by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee: once as Katz of Augusta proposed it and once in combination with many of the provisions of a second bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Christopher Johnson of Somerville.
Johnson’s bill seeks to create a grant program to aid the creation of programs that improve the diets of low-income Mainers.
Katz’s bill requires the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to request permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the state to bar the use of food stamps to purchase certain food items generally categorized as junk food. Katz’s bill defines those foods as having “little to no nutritional value.”
For the most part, the list of foods that would be barred is composed of snack items that are subject to Maine’s sales tax. Those include candy and confections, fudge, ice, liquid iced tea or coffee, soft drinks and water. The majority of grocery items are not subject to sales tax in Maine.
The federal government has never granted a state permission — which is called a “waiver” — to restrict junk food items such as candy and soda from being purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The feds rejected a high-profile effort to bar soda in New York City, though there are efforts pending in Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin to do what Katz is proposing in Maine.
Katz acknowledged that there are problems with his bill, including where to draw the line on which foods should be permissible to purchase with food stamps and which foods aren’t.
“These definitions are not perfect by any means,” he said. “We are not acting in a vacuum here. Some other states are considering similar action, and if a number of states put pressure on the federal government, perhaps they’ll be more willing to grant the waiver.”
Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, agreed.
“If we pass this, it is in some ways picking a fight with the federal government and their policies,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a bad fight to have, considering the high rates of obesity and diabetes we have.”
Katz sponsored a similar bill in 2013, on behalf of Gov. Paul LePage. That bill came out of committee with a split recommendation — much like Katz’s did on Monday — but ultimately failed in the Legislature after some lawmakers tried to morph it into the creation of a study committee.
On Monday, the Health and Human Services committee first voted against Katz’s bill with provisions from Johnson’s bill included. Minutes later, the committee voted for the original version of Katz’s bill, 7-4. Later, when Johnson’s bill came up, it was approved with the language from Katz’s bill included. The minority report on the latter vote was ought not to pass.
The Maine House and Senate will vote on the proposal in the coming weeks.