A long-time lawmaker wants to prohibit Iowans from using food stamps to buy junk food, but grocers warn the move may be difficult for stores in Iowa’s border communities.
Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, says he gets lots of calls from constituents who say they’ve been in the check-out line behind someone who used food stamps to buy candy and soda, but Heaton says whenever he’s tried to address the issue, officials in the Iowa Department of Human Services wave him off.
“We’re told that you’re barking up the wrong tree Dave because you can’t make a change because the federal government prohibits you from being able to describe what foods are healthy or not — and what food stamps should be used for,” Heaton says.
So, Representative Heaton is sponsoring legislation that will force the state agency to ask for a waiver from the federal government, allowing the state to prohibit the use of food assistance money on items with low nutritional value. “And we’re not saying they can’t buy these unhealthy foods,” Heaton says. “We’re saying if you do, you’ve got to use your own money.”
More than 360,000 Iowans are enrolled in the food assistance program today, at an annual cost of half a billion dollars. And while the federal government picks up that tab, Iowa may soon be among a growing number of states requesting additional authority over what people can purchase with the money. Scott Sundstrom, a lobbyist for the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, says supermarkets may have trouble keeping track of the various rules if these waivers are granted to states like Iowa.
“For stores that are located in border areas that serve, you know, on the ‘east coast’ of Iowa residents of Illinois and Wisconsin who potentially would have different requirements on their food assistance benefits than Iowans who came in the store,” he says, “and that could pose some concerns about compliance with both sets of regulations.”
Existing federal rules already forbid food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco products.