VIA| Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to ban food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase candy and sugary drinks, like soda.

The department announced on Nov. 23 it will seek a federal waiver to prohibit such purchases being made with money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Portland Press Herald reports.

It’s not the first time the state has tried to control what SNAP recipients can buy. The most recent move follows several failed efforts by the state legislature to do the same thing

“Healthy eating has the potential of trimming the waistline of both the benefit recipients and state government,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, said recently, according to Reuters.

Mayhew, was appointed by Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who, according to Reuters, has made welfare reform a priority of his administration.

The state’s formal request must be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees federal SNAP funds.

But the federal agency has never approved such a request, despite being asked by nine states. It rejected a 2011 request from New York, the Press Herald reports.

The USDA has pointed out in the past that promoting so-called healthy foods is difficult because clear standards don’t exist, according to The Huffington Post. Banning sodas wouldn’t necessarily extend to other beverages sweetened with sugar, and some fruit juices on the market contain more sugar than some sodas, The Huffington Post reports.

But announcing the move, Mayhew said it is time for the USDA to “start walking the talk” when promoting healthy food choices.

“We believe that the banning of sugary drinks and candy from the SNAP program will make it that much easier for individuals and families to get on the road to healthy eating by making more dollars available for healthy purchases,” Mayhew said, according to the Press Herald.

According to the DHHS, the state spent more than $115 million in medical claims related to obesity through its Medicaid program, and 88 percent of the state’s Medicaid recipients also receive SNAP benefits. Mayhew said promoting poor food choices only leads to more health problems and perpetuates “a cycle of continued spending for health care services.”

The proposed change faces stiff opposition.

The Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association opposes the measure as does Christine Hastedt with Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Hastedt told the Press Herald the change wouldn’t address any of the real needs of poor families and was likely a waste of time given the USDA’s reluctance to approve such measures in the past.

“Why do they keep trotting out this proposal, or similar proposals that they know isn’t going to get traction with the federal government and they know aren’t going to do a single thing about addressing the real problems that people living in poverty are facing?” she said.

“How are we to best improve the lives of Maine people and lift them from poverty?” she added. “Is it through this, that’s going nowhere, gets a lot of air time, but isn’t going to achieve anything? Or would you take a shot at solving the transportation problem, the wages problem? Those are the solutions to poverty in our view.”

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