Gov. Nikki Haley is backing down from a controversial proposal that would have restricted what food stamp recipients can buy, instead shifting her focus on a new strategy to link food stamp eligibility with finding a job.

First announced last year, the intent of Haley's original plan was to curb South Carolina's high obesity rate by eliminating unhealthy foods from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - products like candy, soda, chocolate and chips, she said during a press conference in February 2013.

South Carolina has the sixth-highest obesity rate in the country, according to the new Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index released Tuesday. State officials estimate at least 60 percent of the population in this state is obese or overweight.

The proposal to limit what SNAP benefits could buy in South Carolina would have required federal approval. Other states have tried before to implement similar programs and failed.

On Thursday, Haley's chief of staff, Ted Pitts, in an exclusive interview with The Post and Courier, said the administration will not request a federal waiver to launch that idea after considering feedback from a series of public meetings that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control held last year.

Democrats and many food stamp recipients widely criticized the proposal after it was announced.

Pitts said the decision to change course isn't political. "Whether it's the education initiative she just rolled out or whether it's this initiative, she gets stakeholders involved and listens," Pitts said. "(DHEC Director) Catherine Templeton spearheaded a listening tour where she got input from people that are getting benefits and people that aren't getting benefits, and when you see, holistically, the picture at large, the people that are on benefits want to work, they want to be healthier."

So instead of restricting what food stamp recipients can buy, the S.C. Department of Social Services is asking permission from the Food and Drug Administration to test a pilot program in three counties that would allow the state government to require some of those beneficiaries to find jobs. If they can't find a job, they would need only to show that they are looking for a job to keep their benefits.

"There is a strong correlation between unemployment and obesity," said Lillian Koller, director of the Department of Social Services, which administers the food stamp program in South Carolina. "Food stamp recipients, in particular, the longer they receive food stamps, the higher their BMI."

Body Mass Index, commonly called BMI, is a function of height and weight that health care providers use to measure obesity.

Today, there is no requirement that SNAP recipients actively find employment. They qualify for the program based on low income.

The "SNAP Work 2 Health" proposal would not apply to everyone who receives food stamp benefits - for example, adults with children under 6 would be excluded - and the program would be tested only in three counties to start. Koller said Calhoun, Bamberg and Orangeburg counties were chosen because they have the highest obesity and unemployment rates in the state.

Also, the S.C. Medicaid agency and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are already targeting these counties with other obesity initiatives, including free programs for residents on healthy eating. Haley's staff emphasized that Social Services, Medicaid and the state health department are collaborating to improve the state's obesity rate.

"I wouldn't do this in counties where we don't have the beefed-up interventions that these guys are offering," Koller said.

The Department of Social Services estimates that 8,600 adults who qualify for food stamp benefits in Calhoun, Orangeburg and Bamberg will be subject to the new employment requirements each year, if the federal government approves the idea. Adults in the normal weight range would be required to follow the new rules too, Koller said.

More than 843,000 residents in the state qualified for food-stamp benefits in January 2014, the department estimates. If the pilot program is approved and improves obesity rates in these counties, Pitts said South Carolina could roll out "SNAP Health 2 Work" statewide.

In a separate federal request, the S.C. Medicaid agency asked the government for permission last year to classify obesity as a disease in South Carolina. It would allow health care providers to bill Medicaid for obesity-related treatment.

S.C. Medicaid Director Tony Keck said he expects the request will be approved this year.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.