Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Columbia — or anywhere for that matter — can’t find a lot to agree on. When it comes to brainstorming ways to help South Carolinians lose weight, it’s no different.
Gov. Nikki Haley wants to tackle fat by restricting food-stamp purchases to healthy foods in an initiative she unveiled last month. State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, said Haley’s plan won’t work, and he has started his own program to fight obesity.
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Both are making their cases on social media.
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At a press conference Feb. 21, Gov. Nikki Haley said, “We are going to be the first in the country to ask for a waiver that says if you are on food stamps, we want to lift those families up and help them know what good nutrition is.”On the same day on Twitter, Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, said, “Pols dont understand that the issues of poverty and obesity are tied to the expense and access to healthy alternatives.”Then on Facebook, Haley said, “Proud of Team S.C. for working together with medical and nutritional experts, farmers, grocers, private employers and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to fight obesity and improve health in South Carolina.”She also posted on Facebook, “Obesity is the #1 killer of South Carolinians. We are requesting a waiver from DC that the $1.2 billion we pay in food stamps be spent according to nutritional standards that support healthy eating choices. This will create better outcomes and dramatically reduce our healthcare costs. We will be the first in the country to take on healthcare in a proactive way.”On Twitter, Sellers said, “Hey @nikkihaley … I will join you in a challenge to eat healthy off SNAP funds for 1 week,” and “I will also only shop at stores in Bamberg Barnwell and Colleton Cos. To illustrate the prob of access.”Later that week, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement, “What the governor and state officials have done is challenge all South Carolinians to be healthier. It’s a serious issue, not just another political opportunity for State Rep. Sellers to exploit for personal gain — when he implies that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants are unable to make healthy choices, he insults them. This is an opportunity for leaders like State Rep. Sellers to work with the governor, who grew up in his district, on fighting obesity, the No. 1 killer of South Carolinians.”Then Sellers tweeted, “This discussion about solving the epidemic of obesity genuinely has me excited. I hope some solid common sense ideas come from this.”
Sellers launched a month-long campaign this week called Healthy March. He is encouraging residents to lose weight by eating and drinking better, cutting out junk food, exercising and building “healthy habits.”
“Every time someone cheats on his or her healthy challenge, they must donate to the Healthy March fund,” the Health March website explains. “It can be 50 cents, a dollar or five dollars.” All the proceeds will be donated to the Harvest Hope Food Bank, serving Columbia, Florence and Greenville.
Healthy March is Sellers’ answer to Haley’s food-stamp program.
The governor wants to limit what shoppers can buy with their stamps — no more junk food, like chips, candy and soda. The state must request a federal waiver to restrict these purchases, because guidelines for the food-stamp program are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program would be the first of its kind in the country.
“This is acknowledging something that should have been acknowledged a long time ago,” Haley said when she announced her plan in February. “South Carolina is now in the business of doing things about the problems we have in our state and making them better.”
An estimated one-third of state residents are considered obese. Haley called it South Carolina’s No. 1 killer.
Sellers fired back on Twitter, challenging the governor, also a Bamberg County native, to test her proposal. He asked Haley to join him in a week-long experiment to live only on healthy foods purchased with food stamps.
He also restricted where they could buy that food — only stores in Bamberg and Colleton counties — to illustrate how fruits and vegetables are harder to come by in rural areas, he said.
Haley promoted her initiative on Facebook but ultimately declined Sellers’ challenge; her spokesman called it a political ploy.
Sellers denied that the challenge was politically motivated.
“I don’t think anything she and I do is contentious because we’re friends,” Sellers said.
Now Sellers is calling on his friend again. He said he wants Haley to share how she maintains a healthy lifestyle by writing a blog post on the Healthy March website. If she could donate $1 to the food bank, that would be great too, he said.
Haley’s office did not confirm if she will blog for the website, but issued this statement, “Governor Haley and members of her Cabinet are working to improve health for all South Carolinians, and she appreciates the work of legislators who share that goal.”
On Friday, Sellers said he did not know how many people will participate in the Healthy March challenge.
“(The website has) only been up for 24 hours, but I expect by the end of the weekend we should have some substantial numbers,” he said.
Ed Frongillo, chairman of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior, said the dialogue among politicians is just as important as speculating whether their initiatives will actually work.
“There’s a lot of shared knowledge out there. If that’s exchanged and there’s a legitimate process of coming up with the best ideas for South Carolina, that’s exciting,” Frongillo said.
Patrick O’Neil, director of the Medical University of South Carolina’s weight-management center, said it’s going to take more than one solution to solve the obesity crisis.
“It’s completely unrealistic to think that any particular initiative will be sufficient to turn this aircraft carrier around,” O’Neil said. “It’s just so big.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.