Food stamp bills target junk food, sugary drinks


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on February 8, 2013 at 7:09 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 8 at 7:21 PM

AUSTIN -- Many Texans don't go a day without drinking a soda or energy drink or eating some form of junk food, but legislation filed in the Texas House of Representatives would make sure neither can be bought with food stamps. 
State Rep. Richard Pena Raymond (D-Laredo) is the author of HB 751, which would ban junk food and soft drinks from purchase under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
"We should not be on the one hand using money, tax dollars, to buy junk food, and then on the other hand using tax dollars to pay for the health-related diseases that come about because of junk food," Raymond explained to a South Texas TV station.
The bill dovetails with HB 523, filed by State Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), which would add energy drinks to the list
"There's nothing nutritious or healthy about these products, and in fact they're potentially dangerous to children and we don't believe that you should be able to be using government funds to be buying them," said Canales.
The issue touches concerns raised by Republicans as well. As Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, Todd Staples (R-Texas) has been an advocate for raising nutrition standards, in particular for children at school. 
"Eating right will reduce unnecessary and avoidable health care expenses that taxpayers are being forced to pick up the tab for," Staples told KVUE. "Looking at programs in a way that we can encourage healthy lifestyles and healthy living and using good, wholesome agricultural products is obviously the right thing to do."
Without commenting directly on the specifics of the legislation, Staples suggested while public assistance programs serve a definite need, many would like to see them run cleaner and more efficiently in general.
"I think most Texans agree with that, but what we see so much of today that leads to the frustration of taxpayers is abuse in the system," said Staples. "We can't have programs that perpetuate cycles of dependency. Anything that we do needs to encourage independence and self-reliance."
More than 3.5 million Texans currently receive food stamps under SNAP, a figure that has seen monthly fluctuations upward and downward of 100,000 over the past two years. The benefits can't be used to buy alcohol or tobacco, but when it comes to buying food, there are a variety of factors at play. 
"If you don't have access to the healthy foods then you can't make those healthy choices," said Austin/Travis County Medical Director Dr. Philip Huang. "There's also a lot of the influence of the advertising and the marketing of some of these unhealthy products as well as sometimes the unhealthy products are cheaper." 
The USDA has recently begun mapping "food deserts," areas in which stores that sell healthy foods are few and far between. According to USDA data, more than 50 percent of residents in the East Austin neighborhood home to Oakwood Cemetery have "low access" to healthy foods. More than 10 percent have low access and are low income. Because low income often translates to low mobility, food options may often be limited to what's on nearby convenience stores' shelves. 
"I think one of the things that we're interested in is trying to create an environment where people can make healthy choices," said Huang. "So that they have access to things like fruits and vegetables and other healthier options." 
For all the focus on junk, there's at least a healthy debate.