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Politics

Maine Files to Ban Sugary Soda and Candy from Food Stamps

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has filed for a waiver from the federal government to prevent the use of food stamp funds to pay for the purchase of sugary soda or candy.

Supporters say it's aimed at curbing consumption of foods that contribute to diabetes and obesity, but a bill aimed at banning junk food from the program failed to pass muster in the last session of the Legislature.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew says the state is spending millions of dollars a year to treat poor Mainers for the health effects of obesity and diabetes - conditions that that are preventable through better nutrition. Mayhew says that's why the state is seeking a waiver from Washington, in order to prohibit the use of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to pay for sugary foods and soda.

Mayhew acknowledges that it will be an uphill battle to get the waiver.

"We know what we are up against because the federal government has repeatedly opposed this in other states, but we truly believe this is the right area to start with, to focus on soda, to focus on candy," she says.

Mayhew says some cakes and cookies have as much sugar as candy or soda, but the waiver the state is seeking is a good start in addressing the problem and that further waivers may be sought in the future.

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, a Democrat from Skowhegan, praises the initiative, but wonders why DHHS hasn't sought the waiver before now. Republican state Sen. Roger Katz from Augusta sponsored a bill last year that failed to pass the Senate that would have directed the agency to seek the waiver.

Katz says while it's the right thing to do, it faces tough opposition from big companies that are making profits from food stamp purchases of sugary items.

"The junk food lobby, the soda manufacturers, the candy manufacturers are a very powerful lobby down there and I think that is really what has blocked this sort of reform from taking place," he says.

Katz's bill was also opposed by advocates for the poor. But Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist from Augusta, has long advocated for such a ban. Shenkin says soda manufacturers and candy makers are making a lot of money selling to poor Americans that receive food stamps, and have fought vigorously to maintain that business.

"It's a multibillion dollar subsidy to the soda industry through food stamps," he says. "In Maine, that's anywhere from $15 million to $20 million that is being spent every year by food stamp recipients for soda."

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, says she has not been lobbied by companies that profit from the sale of sugary products, but knows it is going on. She says rather than state-by-state policies she believes Congress should weigh in and set a policy for the entire country on what healthy foods are and what foods should not be included in the food stamp program.

Shenkin says dozens of studies show the connection between high sugar consumption and health problems such as obesity, tooth decay and diabetes, and he'd like to see a policy change at the national level.