Legislating More Obstacles for Wisconsin’s FoodShare (SNAP) Users

Author: Susan Stanton . Date: November 10, 2017

Wisconsin is considering legislation that would initiate two pilot programs within FoodShare, the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Recently introduced, AB 501/SB416 would create a pilot program offering FoodShare recipients discounts on “healthy foods.” The 10-month pilot would include 2000 households, 1000 from Milwaukee County and 500 from Dane County. The estimated cost of the pilot and evaluation is $600,000.

Another legislative proposal for Foodshare, AB 530 calls for a federal government waiver allowing Wisconsin to restrict the use of public benefits on “foods, food products and beverages that do not have sufficient nutritional value.” The estimated cost for this 5-year pilot is $12,006,400.

What are “healthy foods” and what foods have “sufficient nutritional value”?

Understandings of “healthy food” vary by age, culture, availability, portion size, individual health history and numerous other variables. Determining “sufficient nutritional value” poses similar challenges and at the very least, an individual food should be considered relative to the rest of what a person consumes.

Why does the Wisconsin legislature think people utilizing FoodShare need help choosing healthy groceries?

The USDA has determined that the buying habits of people utilizing SNAP programs mirror the buying habits of the rest of the country. If the eating habits of all Wisconsin residents need improvement, then a different approach is needed. Targeting FoodShare users implies that this group has worse eating habits than other Americans. If it is important to legislate what goes into the grocery bags of users of the FoodShare program, then it isn’t because of the food choices and subsequent health outcomes that the bills suggest.

If there was consensus on the definitions of healthy food and if the buying habits of FoodShare recipients were unhealthy, then how might families using FoodShare experience these policies?

Hopefully this is a question that would be addressed in the pilots’ evaluations. But, AB 530 does not include an evaluation component and AB501/SB416 requires an evaluation that only considers what families purchase and users’ health data. The study does not require an exploration of users’ experiences related to the requirements. Many families in urban and rural areas of Wisconsin that utilize FoodShare live in food deserts, areas with little or no access to grocery stores that offer fresh, healthy, and affordable foods. Requiring stores to offer a certain number of healthy food options in order to be able to accept payment through FoodShare may create additional obstacles for store owners in rural and urban areas. For example, sometimes suppliers require that orders include a minimum number of an item. Stores in rural areas may not be able to sell the minimum number and would have to absorb the cost as the food goes bad and urban stores may not have the space to display the minimum number and then face similar challenges. If those stores choose not to participate or can’t afford to remain open, then by imposing healthy food requirements on FoodShare users, those families may be required to travel further to purchase healthy foods which may not be reasonable. Effective policy should consider not only the economic implications for the state, but also the experiences that users have.

Wisconsin’s ongoing legislative emphasis on the eating habits and lives of users of the FoodShare program is noteworthy and troubling. Seeking legislation to restrict people from using public benefits to buy “junk food” is not a new idea for Wisconsin. In addition to stopping FoodShare recipients from buying “too much junk food,” the Wisconsin legislature has also pursued legislation to stop people from using FoodShare funds on “crab, lobster or other shellfish.” Wisconsin has already outlawed the use of FoodShare dollars on the convenient foods that are cooked and prepared at the store. The state of Wisconsin seems committed to controlling the lives and eating habits of it poorest residents at any cost to taxpayers.

In addition to the current proposals discussed above, Governor Walker is pursuing additional changes to FoodShare eligibility through his budget proposal by adding requirements related to child support payments and by requiring cooperation with the child support enforcement agency. Stay tuned for another blog about this topic.



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