Feds Deny Minnesota Request for Ban on Junk Food Purchases with Food Stamps

Published August 1, 2004

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has denied a March 2004 petition by the state of Minnesota for permission to prevent Food Stamp users from purchasing candy and soft drinks with the stamps. The request was denied in a May 4 letter from a regional administrator in Chicago.

Minnesota is the first state to have requested a waiver of the definition of “eligible foods” under the Food Stamp program. The waiver request was proposed by Governor Tim Pawlenty (R).

In its waiver request, the state Department of Human Services described the ban as part of a broader state effort to improve eating habits. “It is inconsistent to encourage healthy nutrition and simultaneously allow the purchase of candy and soft drinks with food stamps,” Assistant Commissioner Maria Gomez wrote.

USDA Regional Administrator Ollice Holden responded that Minnesota’s request would “stigmatize food stamp recipients” and lead to “confusion and embarrassment” in the checkout aisle. “[I]mplementation of this waiver would perpetuate the myth that participants do not make wise food purchasing decisions,” wrote Holden, who stated research has shown Food Stamp recipients to be “smart shoppers” who buy much the same foods as higher-income buyers.

The denial also challenged Minnesota’s definition of what is and isn’t junk food. “Under this proposal, only certain types of candy and soft drinks, as defined by the tax law of Minnesota, would be ineligible for purchase with FSP benefits,” noted Holden. “For example, Minnesota’s request would allow the purchase of Kit-Kat and Twix candies (because they contain flour), but would prohibit the purchase of Hershey candy bars.”

“The (USDA’s) perception is that any food is good food,” Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno told the Associated Press. “The question was, should we stop using taxpayers’ dollars for low-income people to purchase candy bars and soda pop? Their answer was no.”

“We believe that supporting healthier food choices through nutrition education and promotion is preferable to the proposed mandate,” wrote Holden. Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, which represents Minnesota food banks, agreed.

“I think it’s a bad idea to regulate people instead of empowering them,” she told the Associated Press.

John Skorburg is managing editor of Budget & Tax News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The full text of USDA Regional Administrator Ollice Holden’s letter and Waiver Response Outline is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #15364.