RICHMOND, Maine - For Gov. Paul LePage, a federal policy that permits food stamp benefits to be used to purchase sugary drinks, candy and junk food is just another example of what's wrong in Washington these days.
Speaking with residents in the Richmond area who turned out for one of his regular town meetings, LePage said he is not trying to destroy Maine's food stamp program, but reform it.
For much of Wednesday, Democrats and federal policy makers assailed LePage's threat to end Maine's participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, if the feds prohibit him from banning the purchase of sugary drinks and junk food with those benefits.
And, as LePage has done in the past, he offered an example of why he's right by invoking a prominent Democrat.
"This is what we're trying to do. You've heard Michelle Obama is trying to get traditional value in school lunches in schools and the kids are throwing it away." LePage said. "You know why? Because they don't know any better - they don't have any traditional food at home."
And those types of nutritional choices - or lack thereof - are evident in the purchases of junk food by poor parents who use their food stamps to instill poor dietary habits, according to LePage.
The governor told the audience that he knows how to get attention and his threat to terminate the food stamp program if the feds do not allow him to ban junk food purchases shines a spotlight on the issue.
The governor said he would never try terminate a supplemental nutrition program for those who need it. But he warned that unless Maine steps in to take junk food off the menu, food stamp recipients will continue to contribute to Maine's high rate of obesity, type 2 diabetes and hunger.
"What I'm trying to do is reform the SNAP program, I am not against the program," LePage said. "It's called a supplemental nutritional program. I am trying to make sure that the dollars we put into SNAP go to nutritional foods."
But at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees the SNAP program, spokesman Matt Herrick says the LePage administration should proceed cautiously as it considers taking unilateral action to reform federal SNAP regulations to fit its own state policy goals.
"If a state chooses not to administer SNAP, its citizens will not receive those nutrition benefits," Herrick says. "USDA does not have the authority or the funding to administer SNAP at the state level. So in real world terms what that means is: people suffer."
Herrick says that without federal approval of LePage's proposed SNAP restrictions low-income Mainers will lose their food benefits, the state could lose $300 million in federal money to administer the program and authorized SNAP retailers would risk violating federal law if they participated in an unsanctioned ban.
Instead, Herrick urged LePage to work with the USDA to try and address the state's obesity incidence and other health issues.