For the second time in less than two years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has denied a request by Gov. Paul LePage to ban food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy sugary drinks and candy.

His spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, said Friday that the administration would “revise our waiver request and resubmit it,” but she did not offer a timeline or specifics about what those revisions might be.

The Republican governor, in his weekly radio address, vented frustration over the USDA decision and framed the conversation not around reducing welfare spending, which he often has done in the past, but around health.

“This is extremely disappointing because Maine, like other states, is experiencing a health epidemic of obesity and other chronic illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, resulting from the consumption of foods with high sugar content,” LePage said.

Many other states, mostly led by Republican governors, have requested similar waivers and all have been denied.

USDA LOATH TO INTERVENE

In a Jan. 16 letter to Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton, the USDA outlined concerns that a ban would increase administrative costs; impose burdens on small businesses and retailers; choose winners and losers in the food industry; create difficult decisions about the nutritional values of allowable or excluded foods; and “restrict what individuals could eat in their own homes without demonstrating clear evidence of meaningful health outcomes.”

LePage said those concerns are unfounded.

“Implementing the waiver would be much easier than USDA contends, especially since Maine already taxes foods identified as having little or no nutritional value,” he said. “This would make it easier for retailers to identify the banned items.”

Maine’s first request was denied in 2016 by the Obama administration, for largely the same reasons outlined by the USDA this week. LePage responded by threatening to end Maine’s participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program altogether but never followed through.

A November 2016 USDA analysis of SNAP spending at a “leading grocery retailer” nationwide highlighted the problem of SNAP users buying sugary drinks and candy. Nearly 10 percent of SNAP dollars – or more than $600 million – in fiscal 2011 were spent on “sweetened beverages,” which include everything from soda and energy drinks to sweetened instant tea and many fruit drinks. That category is second only to spending on meat, poultry and seafood, according to the USDA analysis.

But experts have argued that the food stamp spending trends merely reflect a national problem.

Rather than restrict SNAP purchases, the USDA has taken steps to encourage the use of food stamps on healthier foods by expanding their use at farmers’ markets.

Since taking office in January 2011, LePage has made reforming public assistance programs such as food stamps a top priority. Although SNAP is funded almost entirely with federal dollars, states administer the benefits and have some discretion over how to do so.

In December 2010, the month before LePage was inaugurated, there were 125,028 active food stamp cases in Maine serving 243,301 people. By December 2017, the caseload had dropped to 93,602 cases and 178,193 individuals.

LEPAGE HAS SOUGHT PHOTO ID RULE

In addition to the so-called junk food waiver, LePage has sought unsuccessfully to require that food stamp recipients have a photo on their benefits card. The federal government criticized the LePage administration in 2014 for not making it clear to assistance recipients that a photo ID was voluntary.

The LePage administration also has implemented more strict work requirements that had been waived for many years during the recession, which has resulted in a reduction in SNAP spending in Maine. Additionally, he has increased the number of fraud investigators within DHHS, which has resulted in a sharp increase in both complaints and convictions.

USDA’s rejection letter acknowledged Maine’s “ongoing efforts to be innovative in managing SNAP and ensuring the integrity of Maine’s SNAP program.”

MAINE’S OBESITY RATE HAS TRIPLED

In his radio address, the governor pointed out that Maine’s obesity rate has tripled from about 10 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2016. Although that’s true, Maine ranks 26th among the 50 states and the increase has mirrored the national rate. Maine’s rate of diabetes is about 10 percent for adults, which also puts the state in the middle of the pack.

Obesity and health have become personal for LePage, who in September 2016 underwent bariatric surgery to lose weight. The governor said he lost 50 pounds from the surgery, which he said was done in part to avoid developing adult-onset diabetes. His wife, Ann LePage, also underwent the same surgery.

Last month, the couple spoke at a conference of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery in Washington, D.C., about their decision to have the surgery and how their health has improved since.

In his radio address this week, LePage criticized the powerful sugar lobby for opposing such bans and compared the industry to Big Tobacco.

“When we could no longer deny that smoking was causing suffering and early death for millions of people, the government finally stood up to Big Tobacco and did the right thing,” LePage said. “The time has come to stand up to Big Sugar and ensure our federal dollars are supporting healthy food choices for our neediest people.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.