TALLAHASSEE — A proposal to prevent food stamps from being used to buy sweets and salty snacks died Monday in a Florida House subcommittee.
The panel stripped the junk food provision from a bill (HB 1401) that also would prohibit welfare recipients from using debit-like electronic cards to access cash benefits outside of Florida or at strip clubs, liquor stores, bars and gambling establishments.
The panel then approved the truncated bill 9-5.
The junk food provision would have prohibited the use of food stamps to purchase sweets such as candy, cupcakes, doughnuts, Popsicles, Jell-O and pudding. It would have also banned the purchase of pretzels, popcorn, potato chips and other salty snacks
Several members who voted for it, though, warned the sponsor they would oppose a similar Senate bill (SB 1658) if that measure passes that chamber still containing the food stamp provision or any effort to restore it to the House version. Each bill must clear one more committee in its chamber before it can get a floor vote.
Opponents said the proposed food stamp limits would infringe on individual responsibility and recipients' freedom to choose what they want to eat without interference from "big government."
"Thank God there's still freedom, and a fat guy can get a Coke once in a while," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, said he prefers a balanced approach to nutrition.
"I believe my kids eat pretty healthy, but on a hot summer day playing outside, a Popsicle's pretty good," Davis said. "That's something that is not going to harm a child, and in fact I think it's part of growing up."
Ebony Faith Yarbrough, food and nutrition coordinator for the anti-hunger nonprofit Florida Impact, told the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee the junk food ban would bring back stigma to food stamp recipients, many of them still struggling in the wake of the Great Recession.
"Requiring them to then restrict their food purchases in a way that kind of looks over their shoulder into their carts into what they have, we find to be unconscionable," she said.
Yarbrough argued there's no scientific evidence showing food stamp recipients purchase unhealthy foods at a rate greater than the general population. She said the answer to better nutrition is education.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott Plakon, conceded defeat at the onset, and agreed to a committee amendment that removed the food stamp provision. The Longwood Republican said he realized it was a lost cause over the weekend when he began speaking with members of the subcommittee.
Plakon also acknowledged it was unlikely the federal government, which funds the food stamp program, would approve a waiver that Florida would need to implement such restrictions.
The surviving limits in the bill would apply to temporary cash assistance, a separate program. Plakon called it a "reasonable and modest restriction."
"As a compassionate state and society we need to provide help for those that cannot help themselves," Plakon said. "But we should also be thinking about the other person that is not in this room ..., the taxpayers of Florida and the federal taxpayers."
Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, opposed the bill, saying, "It's a punishing attitude toward people in need."
Another opponent, Rep. Mark Pafford, said the ban on using the cash cards outside Florida would harm some participants in the state's relocation program for domestic abuse victims. Some have been relocated to border areas and have jobs in Georgia and Alabama, the West Palm Beach Democrat said. Plakon said he would work with Pafford to address that issue as the bill moves on in the legislative process.