FORT LAUDERDALE — Florida’s poor can use food stamps to buy staples like milk, vegetables, fruits and meat. But they can also use them to buy sweets like cakes, cookies and Jell-O and snack foods like chips — something a state senator wants stopped.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, also wants to limit other welfare funds, known as Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, from being used at ATMs in casinos and strip clubs and anywhere out of state. The bill comes after reports that the debit cards welfare recipients now receive were used in those places, as well as locations in Las Vegas and the Virgin Islands in a small percentage of cases, but the state does not track what items were purchased.
The bill recently passed a committee. A companion bill in the state House is being considered by a subcommittee.
The bill would also require the state to launch a culturally sensitive campaign to educate people about the benefits of a nutritious diet. Supporters say it would help recipients follow healthy eating habits and prevent taxpayer funds from being used to purchase luxury foods such as bakery cakes when they can whip up a cheaper box mix.
“Most individuals using public assistance dollars are using the funds to get by and to provide for their families. However, we should do what we can to prevent dollars intended to help Florida’s poorest families from being spent in the wrong places,” Storms said in a statement.
But critics say the government shouldn’t dictate what people eat.
“What I choose to ingest even though I may be on food stamps, that’s at my discretion,” said Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, a Pompano Beach Democrat who voted in committee against the bill (SB 1658). “I don’t need government telling me what I can and cannot purchase.”
She said the bill is demeaning and invasive and she worries the education campaign would imply to “minorities and low-income folks that they’re not intelligent enough to make selections on the foods they want.”
The state Department of Children and Families, which oversees the food stamp program, would have to get federal approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement the bill if it passes, which may be tricky since no other states have been successful.
The federal government spent nearly $5 billion last year to help about 3 million Floridians, as an increasing number are relying on the program in a sour economy. The average monthly benefit in the state is about $140 per person, according to the USDA.
In 2004, Gov. Tim Pawlenty tried to make Minnesota’s welfare program the first in the country to ban recipients from buying candy with food stamps, but feds didn’t go for it. Last year, New York City applied for a waiver to restrict the sale of soda and sugary drinks, but that was also denied.
Iowa, California and Texas have proposed similar bills the past two years, but nothing has been passed into law, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
The waivers often require cumbersome negotiations with federal officials and, if granted, cannot originally be applied statewide. The USDA requires a control group, meaning it must be started as a pilot program in a few counties, and be evaluated by an outside party, said Sheri Steisel, director of human services policy for NCSL.
GOP VS. ACLU
The proposal comes months after another attempt to clamp down on welfare spending. Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature passed a law last year supporting drug testing for welfare recipients. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a military veteran and single father and it’s now a class-action case.
U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven in Orlando issued an order temporarily blocking implementation of the law, which she found may violate a constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The state is appealing the order that put testing on hold until Scriven can hold a full hearing.
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, who sponsored the House bill, is working with others on the sugar issue before the bill goes to the next committee.
A group of bishops and welfare advocates met with lawmakers to oppose the bill they say is insulting to Florida’s growing number of unemployed.
“The proposed legislation creates new hurdles for families already struggling to meet their most basic daily needs,” said Debra Susie, executive director for Florida Impact and the Florida Partnership to End Childhood Hunger.
Photo: Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed