A Tennessee lawmaker has filed a bill in the legislature that would prohibit low-income families from using food stamps to purchase items high in calories, sugar or fat, saying such benefits should come with strings attached.
Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, filed the bill Thursday, which would ban the purchase of foods such as ice cream, candy, cookies and cake, which the bill says is recommended by the Department of Agriculture. Under the bill’s language, the state also would be able to seek a waiver to create a list of prohibited food items.
Individuals and businesses that violate the measure, should it become law, would be fined $1,000 for a first offense, $2,500 for a second offense and up to $5,000 for a third or more offense in a five-year period.
“When you’re receiving taxpayer dollars, it’s not money that you’ve have earned. It’s money that other people have earned and is redistributed to you. Strings come along with that,” Butt said in a release posted on her website.
“By allowing their purchase with EBT cards, we are actually enhancing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity in at-risk communities.”
Butt said in the release that taxpayers are "subsidizing unhealthy lifestyle choices" for people who receive food stamps.
"At the end of the day, if you’re on public assistance, you shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to consume junk food that leads to additional health problems and more taxpayer assistance to address those problems,” Butt explained.
According to state records, more than $134 million in food Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were distributed to more than 1 million individuals statewide in November.
Nearly a quarter of that total, about $31.1 million, went to Shelby County alone. Davidson County received about $11.8 million, and Knox County received about $6.5 million. Maury County, which includes Butt's district, received about $1.4 million in benefits in November, paid to more than 5,700 households.
Linda Williams, the president and CEO of the RISE Foundation in Memphis, said the legislation punishes low-income individuals for a problem that should be addressed through education.
“We’re trying to impose a regulation on people where the general public has the same issue,” she said.
Williams, who worked for the Department of Human Services for 32 years and earned a master’s degree studying nutrition across income levels, said access and availability of healthy foods are a bigger problem, and one that isn’t specific to low-income individuals.
“It’s not really a legislative issue; it’s an educational issue,” she said.
Dr. Manny Sethi, who along with his wife founded Healthy Tennessee, a nonprofit organization seeking to promote preventative health care, agreed that the issue is more about education.
"You can pass laws all day long that you want, but until people understand that they shouldn’t eat three pints of ice cream a day (things won't change)," he said. "I don’t think Capitol Hill telling people what they can eat is the right thing."
Sethi said he believes it would be more effective if government offered tax breaks and incentives to food suppliers to come into areas throughout the state they would not otherwise go to and promote healthier eating.
Joel Ebert contributed to this report.
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