LITTLE ROCK — A House committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would allow food stamps to be used only for products the state deems sufficiently nutritious.
In a 12-6 vote, the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee endorsed House Bill 1035 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, which would require the state Department of Human Services to request a federal waiver allowing it to prohibit the use of benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to buy food or beverages with insufficient nutritional value.
DHS would have to determine what items have sufficient nutritional value, using the federal guidelines for the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Bentley told the committee Arkansas is the sixth most obese state in the nation and said the Arkansans with the highest obesity rates are those with low incomes.
“This common sense legislation will simply incentivize food stamp recipients to purchase what (the stamps) were meant for, food that they can use to feed their families and decrease hunger, not for junk food that will help to lead to obesity and poor health,” she said.
Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, testified against the bill. She said the alliance supports healthy food choices and offers educational programs on healthy shopping and cooking, but she said HB 1035 would make it harder for some low-income people to feed their families.
Many families live in areas with no nearby grocery store and have to shop for food at dollar stores and convenience stores, Webb said. She also said that “eating healthy costs more money.”
“On a daily basis, families choose between paying rent and buying food, paying utility bills and buying food, buying medicine and buying food,” she said.
Paul Rowton of Edwards Food Giant also testified against the bill, saying that “all of the burden of this legislation seems to be put on retailers,” which he said would bear the cost of upgrading their registers. For Edwards Food Giant, the cost could be over $1 million, he said.
Bentley told reporters after the meeting she did not run the bill last session because she did not believe Barack Obama’s administration would have granted the waiver, but she said she believes Donald Trump’s administration will.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson is reserving judgment on the legislation for now, a spokesman said Tuesday.
The bill goes next to the House.