Citing what it terms “major flaws” WISCAP voiced strong opposition to Assembly Bill 177, a bill that would place new restrictions on those utilizing the FoodShare program.
The proposed legislation would require that 67% of all food purchases be limited to foods the state deems nutritious. The bill lays out a list of eligible foodstuffs, which include foods “that are on the list of foods authorized for the federal special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC foods); beef; pork; chicken; fish; and fresh produce.”
In testimony before the Assembly Committee on Public Benefit Reform, WISCAP noted its opposition to the legislation is based on a number of factors.
• The bill would “ignore the reality” that many communities in the state are “food deserts” where fresh produce and foods authorized by the legislation are in limited supply and more expensive.
• Among the ordinary and basic foods not approved in the bill and utilized often by families are pasta, soups, macaroni and cheese, nuts and creamed vegetables. In addition, many WIC approved foods are brand-specific and more costly.
• WISCAP also warned the committee that the bill would expand government’s hand in the marketplace limiting individual freedom of choice individual responsibility.
Before legislation could be implemented, the state must determine start-up and compliance costs for retailers and wholesalers and report to the Joint Finance committee on those costs. The state would be required to reimburse retailers and wholesalers for the initial costs associated with the new requirements. A fiscal analysis of the bill prepared by the Department of Health Services, while not able to identify the costs for implementation of AB 177, did state that a comparable program piloted in Massachusetts totaled $55.6 million in retailer infrastructure costs.
Irony of a sort was also pointed out during WISCAP’s testimony. Recently the legislature told municipalities they can’t use nutritional content as a basis to restrict sales of food and beverages. As WISCAP noted, the legislature is seeking to do just that for “hundreds of thousands of residents, simply because they are poor.”
As the food stamp program is funded primarily through federal monies, federal waivers would need to be obtained from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) before this legislation could be enacted. And the USDA has denied waiver requests for similar requests from other states.
While opposing the proposed bill, WISCAP acknowledged the importance of healthy, nutritional food choices, noting that state residents on all income levels face the problem of poor food choices. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics have found that all income levels buy about the same proportion of healthy foods.) WISCAP used its testimony to offer a number of suggestions to improve healthy eating among FoodShare recipients. They include economic development initiatives to encourage supermarkets to locate in “food deserts” and increased resources for the Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program. WISCAP and the UW Extension have also developed a compendium of voluntary actions food pantries and others can use to increase nutritional quality and healthier eating.
In spite of extensive testimony in opposition to AB 177 by others as well as WISCAP, the bill was passed out of the Public Benefits Reform Committee on May 7th on a 8-6 vote. The full Assembly is scheduled to take up the legislation on Wednesday, May 13, 2015.