Working 4 You: What Food Stamps Can Buy, a SNAP Factcheck

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark.–LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Working 4 You headed to Perry County to fact check a lawmaker’s claim that a small country food store offered plenty of healthy food choices to make dinner in defense of her bill that suggests restricting what food stamp recipients can buy at the store.

“I want to see Arkansas children’s sippy cups filled with milk and juice instead of Mt. Dew and Pepsi,” State Representative Mary Bentley (R-District 73) told the House Public Health and Welfare Committee on Tuesday as she presented a bill to eliminate soda and junk foods from approved items that could be purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards. Those benefits are commonly referred to as EBT or food stamps.

You can watch the full committee hearing from January 17 here at the Arkansas House Video Library site.

Bentley, cited a recent report that soft drinks were the top single commodity (by expenditure) for SNAP recipients. But the report also found that non-SNAP households bought the same types of foods as the SNAP households, and the Top 10 commodity categories showed little difference, and that meat/poultry/seafood summary categories actually were the number one type of products purchased by both groups.

What that means is that those receiving food stamps do not necessarily have any less healthy a diet than their non-benefit receiving counterparts.

To support her claims that restricting SNAP benefits to receive foods of “sufficient nutritional value,” Bentley denied the claim that the bill could create or exacerbate food deserts in Arkansas.

Food deserts are an issue Working 4 You covered last year in-depth (see related stories to the left). Food deserts exist when communities do not have access to grocery stores within a certain distance of their homes. Lack of transportation and poverty can increase those struggles.

But Bentley claimed that even at Williams Junction Grocery, a small country store in Perry County, buyers have enough healthy options to shop for without resorting to junk to make dinner. Williams Junction Grocery is the closest store for people in that area by about 15 miles.

“You can find milk, eggs, you can find cheese, you can find milk,” Bentley told the committee. “You can find anything you want to make a meal.”

So, Working 4 You, drove up to Perry County and visited the store. Inside, we found Haley Cox, who has worked behind the counter as a clerk for a year and assists in ordering and purchasing the inventory. The store does not actually accept food stamps, but Cox said there is plenty of demand for it.

“There are some weeks where every day you’re getting people asking about food stamps, do you accept food stamps? ” she said.

While most people might agree that soda maybe should not be purchased with SNAP benefits, trying to determine what sufficient nutritional value means could start to limit struggling families’ options. Opponents asked legislators to think about access some families lack that others might have, depending on where they live.

“I hope that we can look and consider folks who don’t have some of the same options we do,” said Kathy Webb, Executive Director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance as she testified to the committee. “Access to nutritious food is not equitable throughout our state. We do have many families who live in food deserts.”

Inside Williams Junction Grocery, we did find spaghetti noodles and pasta sauce, which would cost about five bucks before taxes. But then the one pound of ground beef we could find was about $6. Milk and eggs were available, along with some loaves of bread. But sliced turkey was about $7 a pound from the deli. Bologna was less healthy but also less expensive. Options for chili posed the same problems. 

Ramen was readily available, along with peanut butter and jelly. 

“In the situation I am right now, if I had a child it would be really tough especially to figure out a whole meal from here,” Cox said. “We’d like to have more options, but it’s expensive for us here at the store to buy things and maybe not be able to sell them.”

“Families and individuals who qualify for SNAP are low-income they make difficult choices,” Webb cautioned committee members. “Those who work at food banks across the state can tell you that parents are trying to decide whether they pay the rent or buy food; get the car repaired so they can get to work or buy food; pay utilities or buy food.”

Some members of the public said healthy eating isn’t any more expensive than eating unhealthy foods.

“Rice is cheap and nutritious, dried beans are cheap and nutritious, bananas are dirt cheap and nutritious. Carrots are pretty cheap. Sweet potatoes,” said one member of the public commenting at the committee meeting.

Of all those items he listed, we found just rice and beans in this store. The produce included potatoes sprouting eyes and yellow onions. Lettuce and tomatoes they sometimes sell were surplus from the deli. Other fruits and vegetables come in cans, because the small populations isn’t large enough to support greater selection.

“Around here, healthy food in this store is kind of hard to keep, especially like bananas, apples,” Cox said. “We don’t sell it and it goes bad. So,  it ends up we’re wasting money.”

Some committee members seemed to suggest that by limiting SNAP recipients to only spending money on “sufficiently nutritious” items, it would somehow transfer to healthier habits for kids. Webb contested that theory, saying before people can learn to eat healthy, both in low-income and high-income households, they have to know how to prepare healthy food so that its desirable to the people in their family. Webb cited a recent study that found it can take children up to seven times to try a new food before they determine they like it. If the child rejects the food, not all parents have the option of serving them something different to keep them from going hungry.

“I am fortunate enough that when my great-nephew comes over, and I try to fix him something, if he doesn’t want to eat it we can go to the refrigerator and try something else,” Webb said. “We hear from many mothers who just cannot afford that. They say they will try to introduce healthy options several times, just to have the children reject it.”

The Arkansas Hunger Relief Reliance has developed educational programs to help families tackle the issue of knowing what to buy and how to fix it in its Cooking Matters and Cooking Matters at the Store programs. Participants can gain some experience on recipes, meal planning and creating grocery shopping lists. 

“In a way, I kind of agree limiting food stamps because I think children need them to eat a lot more healthy foods but that’s going to make things super difficult as well on parents,” Cox said. “I do know that.”

Another point on the fact check from Bentley’s testimony. She noted that she did not believe there would be a fiscal impact to a change in the program. However, the Department of Health’s initial estimates, after only just being added to the bill, say it would cost about $120,000 a year to hire two new full-time staff members to create the criteria, maintain the list and develop the guidelines for retailers. That amount could change, depending on further details.

Edward’s Food Giant, an Arkansas-based grocery chain, said it would cost its company roughly $1 million to upgrade its register programs, not to mention ongoing updates as items are added to the database.

Bentley, in her bill, suggests that the guidelines follow the guidelines for the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC). Bentley’s goal is to reduce obesity and Medicaid-Medicare costs from obesity related illness. However, Webb cautioned that the WIC guidelines would not necessarily fare well for Arkansas’ elderly SNAP recipients, those with chronic health conditions and others.

For example, Webb noted that the WIC program can require what types of foods (non-fat versus whole milk yogurt) a person can buy, but also the size amounts. For a single elderly person on SNAP, they may not be able to finish a 32-ounce jug of yogurt prior to it spoiling, but under WIC guidelines, those size-type restrictions often apply. Those larger items typically cost more, which means food would be going bad, while costing consumers more.

Even if lawmakers approve the changes, USDA would have to provide a waiver (which it has never done). Bentley indicated that she believed with a new president there could be a shift in administrative decisions to what she described as a more “common-sense” approach. 

In testifying to the committee, Bentley noted that Arkansas would not necessarily be the pioneering state on these changes. She noted that a lawmaker in Tennessee had filed a similar bill. That lawmaker has now pulled the legislation from consideration. 

Bentley also cited changes made in the Maine SNAP food program. The local media there provided this account of a face-off between the governor and the federal government last year. 

A few more details to consider:

Mary Bentley would like to see Arkansas bump up from its health ranking of 48 to 30 in the nation. That 30 slot is currently held by Alaska, which has a median income nearly double that of Arkansas and its unemployment rate is half the 20% Arkansas experiences as a state. For top-ranked Hawaii, it’s roughly the same story. Higher median incomes, lower poverty levels and a higher health ranking. Of course, the study takes into account more factors than just those, but poverty levels can play a hefty role in hunger in health.

According to the same SNAP study that Bentley cited the 5 percent soda figure from, the researchers also found that 80 cents of every SNAP dollar goes to basics like milk, eggs, meat, bread, cereal, vegetables and fruits. The remaining 20 cents of each dollar are divvied up among the other food groups (including condiments, juices, teas, coffees, chips, candy, etc.).

Nearly 500,000 individuals, and more than 200,000 households, in Arkansas receive some sort of benefit from SNAP. The average monthly benefit per household is about $250, which holds true for the rest of the country as well. 

To follow this story and all of Marci’s coverage, click here for Facebook or here for Twitter.

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