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Nancy Smith

Food-Ban Bills Take a Bite out of Reason

February 12, 2012 - 6:00pm

Does the Florida Legislature really want to set itself up as the state food police?

Curiously, it's done just that in a pair of bills now winding through committee, HB 1401 and SB 1658 -- both introduced by Republicans. If passed, these bills would prohibit food stamp recipients from buying all kinds of products with salt and sugar -- from pretzels and cupcakes to ice cream and soda.

Something's not right here. Aren't we the party of Lincoln? Don't we think twice, three times before we intrude in people's lives?

While it's tempting to use public assistance programs to attack childhood obesity, this is the state Legislature that back in the 1990s eliminated physical education in public schools. It has a lot to answer for, a lot of hypocrisy to put right.

It's also the state Legislature that voted in 1998 to let moms and dads decide whether to put their children in a charter school or in a local public school. Does it make sense that we can't trust the same parents to walk down a supermarket aisle and make the right choices to feed their families?

Bill sponsors Scott Plakon in the House and Ronda Storms in the Senate mean well. Half of their legislation deals with prohibiting the 93,000 recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from drawing cash from their EBT cards -- debit cards -- at casinos, Internet cafes, strip clubs and the like. That's a separate issue and no doubt it's worthy of addressing. The Department of Children and Families claims the average family gets $240 a month for about five months under TANF.

But food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is entirely different. SNAP is federal. Some 3.3 million Floridians have a SNAP card.

Think of that for a moment. Imagine what a horror story this legislation would morph into for Florida supermarkets -- in fact, for anyone who sells snack foods or food containing sugar. A customer -- statistically, we're talking about one in every six customers -- pulls out her SNAP card at the checkout counter and the nightmare begins. What qualifies and what doesn't?

No wonder the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Beverage Association are both opposed to these bills.

Then there are the feds. Being federal, SNAP comes with an administration rule book the size of the Manhattan telephone directory. The program is carved in stone. In its 48-year history, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has never waived its food stamp regulations for any state. Trust me, the USDA is entirely unlikely to grant a waiver to Florida so that it can redefine eligible foods. No waiver, no food policing for the poor.

So let's summarize what we've got with the food-half of the Storms-Plakon bills:

  • Buttinski-ism -- unattractive and should be among us Repubs.
  • Nervous breakdowns and utter chaos for the retail food industry.
  • Not a shred of hope of a waiver from the feds

As written, these bills are doomed.

Don't think it's only liberals who look at this legislation and hold their nose. Here's what Dana Young, R-Tampa, had to say about HB 1401: "I don't want people telling me what to eat and I don't think it's right for us as a government -- even if they happen to be poor. Even if they happen to be on food stamps."

Look for an amendment to remove the food portion of Plakon's bill during Monday's 1:45 p.m. House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. While Plakon may be ready to give up the untenable, Storms' SB 1658 in the Senate so far is staying where it is and as it is. Storms proudly described her bill to Nick Cuveto of Fox Business Network by the nickname "No Twinkie Left Behind."

It's certainly true, childhood obesity is a deadly serious and growing problem in Florida, and I admire Plakon and Storms for bringing the issue to the fore.

But don't you think the cause might better be served first with a statewide conversation on the subject, rather than on imposing some kind of food ban?

A better move for Storms and Plakon would have been to establish a Blue Ribbon Panel on Childhood Obesity in Florida.

Let's gather studies on foods that most contribute to obesity. Let's talk about the big sinner, high fructose corn syrup. We can find out what we were eating 30 years ago, what was in it and why children escaped obesity.

Let's talk about building all new schools on at least two levels, requiring children to climb stairs as a matter of routine.

Let's talk about reintroducing physical education in the public school curriculum, discuss what it would take to keep gymnasiums open after school and allow students to use high school tracks and athletic fields in the summer.

Florida could set goals, create an aggressive plan of attack and be a true national leader in the prevention of childhood obesity. Let's dump the food-ban bill first, then begin the conversation as we should have in the first place.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at (850) 727-0859.

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