Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is seeking permission from the Trump administration to bar food stamp recipients from redeeming their benefits for sugary beverages and candy at the grocery store.
“Now, more than ever, SNAP funds need to be used to improve nutrition and health of low-income people by excluding purchases of products with no nutritional value,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew wrote to officials with the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service last month in requesting permission to implement restrictions that the federal government has never before approved.
But in the process of pursuing a policy supposedly aimed at improving the public’s health, Mayhew is proposing to entirely undermine another mechanism the state has to give kids and adults the tools they need to make healthy, affordable diet choices.
Each year, Maine receives $4 million to $5 million in federal funds that pay for a nutrition education program called SNAP-Ed that reaches children at school and adults in the classroom, at the grocery store and in the kitchen. Last year, according to Maine’s SNAP-Ed annual report, the program delivered more than 11,000 nutrition education classes to more than 34,000 children and adults, many of whom took multiple classes for a total of more than 173,000 interactions.
Mayhew, however, is convinced these efforts aren’t working because obesity is still prevalent in Maine. “It is clear that a different approach must be considered,” she wrote in her request to federal officials. So, Mayhew is asking the federal government for permission to dismantle SNAP-Ed and send the funds directly to food banks, schools and community service agencies so they can distribute healthy foods to families in need.
Last year, nearly 15,000 kids participated in a SNAP-Ed class called “Pick a better snack ” at school. Participating students had the chance to taste-test a variety of fruits and vegetables and become familiar with them as nutritious and tasty snack options. Students created their own healthy snack combinations and learned about the importance of regular exercise.
And parents and teachers said the special curriculum paid off. A survey research company that conducted an independent review of the Maine program reported that parents of second and third graders said their kids were more frequently requesting fruits and vegetables at home, and that they more often ate them with dinner and dessert and as snacks. Teachers surveyed said students chose fruits and vegetables more often in the school cafeteria and that students were more willing to expand their palates and try new foods after participating.
Adults, through SNAP-Ed, have the chance to learn some of those skills that are never taught in school but are important in everyday life: Strategies for shopping efficiently and nutritiously, and nutritious family cooking on a food stamp budget.
Last year, more than 3,100 Maine adults participated in “Cooking Matters at the Store.” They participated in grocery store tours, during which they learned about using unit prices to make the most of their money, buying fresh produce on a budget and identifying whole-grain foods. Adults in all 16 counties also had access to cooking classes offered by Good Shepherd Food Bank, made possible by SNAP-Ed.
These are classes that plant the seed early in life for healthy diet choices and give people in need the tools to provide their families with nutritious meals. And Mayhew plans to dismantle it all in favor of using the money to distribute additional food at food banks and in schools.
It calls to mind the adage, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
In this case, it seems, the LePage administration would perpetuate a growing dependence on food pantries in Maine over a constructive approach to addressing food insecurity and promoting self-sufficiency.
At best, it’s a puzzling approach to breaking the cycle of poverty. At worst, it’s another example of the LePage administration continuing to chip away at Maine’s ability to proactively improve the health of its people.