Haley’s plan vs. federal study

Gov. Nikki Haley: “We are going to go to the hot spots. We are going to go to the base where we know we actually have the problems, touch the people who are causing the problems and that’s going to make the difference in what we do.”

The federal study: “No evidence exists that Food Stamp Program participation causes obesity.”

Haley: “You are looking at a billion dollars that will no longer be put toward candy and chocolate and sodas and chips, but may be put into apples and oranges and things that are healthy.”

study: “Food stamp recipients are no more likely than higher income consumers to choose foods with little nutritional value; thus the basis for singling out low-income food stamp recipients and restricting their food choices is not clear.”

Haley: “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.”

study: “The idea of restricting the food choices of food stamp recipients as a means of promoting dietary improvement among low-income Americans has serious conceptual and practical flaws.”

Sources: Gov. Haley’s February announcement of the plan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control

West Ashley resident Shirley Wilson gets $32 a month in food stamp vouchers, and she said it’s not the government’s business to tell her what kind of food she should be able to buy with them.

“Nobody should tell me how to eat, except when I’m dying and a doctor puts me on restrictions,” said Wilson, shopping at Save-A-Lot in West Ashley Tuesday afternoon. “Why are you going to tell me how to spend $32?”

That’s exactly what Gov. Nikki Haley wants to do.

Haley has proposed restricting soda, candy and other high-sugar, low-fiber foods from purchase by food-stamp recipients in an effort to help curb the state’s obesity problem.

Wilson doesn’t like the idea, and the federal government says it probably won’t work.

While members of Haley’s Cabinet, including Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton, have endorsed the plan, DHEC’s website includes a hyperlink to an 11-page federal report published six years ago explaining why the proposal isn’t practical.

The study cites several reasons for that conclusion, including how there are no accepted standards for judging the “healthfulness” of foods against each other.

Also, “food stamp recipients are no more likely than higher income consumers to choose foods with little nutritional value,” and “about 70 percent of all food stamp participants ... are expected to purchase a portion of their food with their own money. There is no guarantee that restricting the use of food stamps would affect food purchases,” the study said.

The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 already restricts food-stamp recipients from buying alcohol, tobacco and hot, ready-to-eat food items, such as rotisserie chickens, with the vouchers. The Haley administration wants to push those restrictions further, eliminating foods commonly associated with obesity, such as soft drinks.

“I don’t care what you buy with your money, but when the government is giving a supplemental nutrition voucher to buy whatever you want to and it’s the same group of people who we are then treating for obesity ... it doesn’t make sense,” Templeton told The Post and Courier after the proposal was announced last month.

“I don’t know if it’s an education that eggs are better than Coke, but we’re subsidizing obesity and that’s my issue. They can buy Coke with their money.”

The state government has not issued a definitive list of what would and would not be allowed under the proposed guidelines.

More than 878,000 South Carolinians, about 18.5 percent of the state’s population, rely on food stamps.

North Charleston resident Carmen Gonzalez, 33, is one of them. She agreed that some restrictions should be placed on food-stamp purchases — recipients shouldn’t be able to buy a $100 cake from a bakery, she said, but they should be able to buy soft drinks and snacks.

“They should need it, not abuse it,” Gonzalez said.

Because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP, is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Haley administration will need permission from the federal government to implement the proposal.

The USDA website explains that that’s more tricky than it sounds.

“Since the current definition of food is a specific part of the (Food and Nutrition Act of 2008), any change to this definition would require action by a member of Congress,” a statement on the USDA website says. “Several times in the history of SNAP, Congress had considered placing limits on the types of food that could be purchased with program benefits. However, they concluded that designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome.”

Laura Nance, a registered dietician at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Weight Management Center, said even if the program is implemented, it can’t be expected to solve the whole problem.

“It’s not just about the diet piece, it’s about getting more active and changing behaviors,” Nance said. “This is just one very small piece of the entire puzzle.”

DHEC is conducting a series of meetings around the state to solicit comments about the idea. The final meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. May 2 at the Navy Yard in North Charleston.

Comments also can be submitted online on DHEC’s website, scdhec.gov.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.