A chance meeting with DHEC Director Catherine Templeton at a Mount Pleasant juice bar helped plant the seed for a food stamp soda ban in South Carolina.

“I was at Sprout one morning getting a juice and there she was,” said Louis Yuhasz.

The founder of Louie's Kids has been fighting obesity “one child at a time” — as his group's motto says — for 12 years through summer camp scholarships, health club memberships, exercise groups and more.

When Yuhasz co-chaired December's “Conquering Tri-County's Obesity Epidemic” meeting, he said that buying unhealthy food with food stamps is something we as a state (and a nation) should work to eliminate.

He spent a few days in Washington, D.C., last year, meeting with people like Audrey Rowe, the administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service, (aka the food stamp program) as well as congressional staffers.

When he saw that Maine Gov. Paul LePage proposed legislation in January to put sodas on the list of banned items for food stamps, “that's when I emailed Catherine,” he said. If a few governors could start talking about it, he reasoned, maybe it could happen.

Uphill battle

A similar soda ban proposal was rejected in 2011 in New York. But this time might be different. Talk between Templeton and Lillian Koller, director of the Department of Social Services, has also focused on enacting the waiver for households with children.

Trying to overhaul the federal system would likely take time, and, as Yuhasz was told in Washington, money.

But it certainly can't be any more than the $190 billion a year being spent on obesity-related illnesses.

Yuhasz would like to see sodas, candy, ice cream and snack cakes banned from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program purchases, but he says he'd be extremely pleased to see a soda ban as a first step.

“If you ask any average taxpayer if we should be footing the bill for soda, I firmly believe that they would say no,” Yuhasz said.

And after all, a food stamp ban doesn't mean you can't buy soda. It means you can't buy soda with food stamps — big difference.

One step at a time

When kids who join Louis' Kids fail to lose weight after several weeks of intensive exercise, it's usually soda that's the culprit.

Yuhasz points out that the Women, Infant and Children food assistance program has restrictions on what can be purchased. And actually, so does the SNAP program, but on the traditional so-called sin items — liquor, wine, beer and tobacco.

He wonders why we care about what children are eating through age 5 but don't care about it when they get older.

“I think if anybody's going to do it it'll be Catherine Templeton,” he said, adding that he knows other prominent people like Jenny Sanford also have been supportive of health initiatives. “And they all have the ear of (Gov. Nikki) Haley,” he said.

How refreshing it would be for our state to take the lead on children's health and the obesity epidemic.

Reach Melanie Balog at mbalog@postandcourier.com or 937-5655.