Capitol Report Food stamp bills promote healthier eating

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Two GOP food stamp bills with the shared goal of promoting healthier eating are getting mixed reviews.

One bill was liked by minority Democrats at a recent Assembly committee hearing. AB 501 would create a healthy eating incentive pilot program that would provide to 2,000 FoodShare households discounts on fresh produce and other healthy foods. That program would be administered by the Department of Health Services.

The bill, authored by Rep. Mike Rohrkaste and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, has several Democratic co-sponsors. Rohrkaste, R-Neenah, characterized the bill as taking "a carrot approach, sorry for the pun."

THE OTHER proposal, AB 530, would require DHS to conduct a pilot program to study whether the state should limit FoodShare benefits only for purchases with "sufficient nutritional value."

That bill was authored by Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi. It differs from a similar measure proposed last session that would've largely limited purchases to an existing list of approved foods under the WIC program for women, infants and children. This session, Pronschinske's bill would instead let DHS and other stakeholders develop a list of appropriate food and beverages.

Dems and some business interests lined up against the legislation, arguing the approach wasn't evidence-based, raising concerns about how to define unhealthy foods and questioning why food stamp participants should be treated "any differently than the rest of us."

BUT Pronschinske, as well as Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said oversight was necessary because taxpayers are subsidizing the program.

"You talk about fair and equal, but it's taxpayer money," Schraa said. "A private person can spend their money on whatever they want."

Other opponents worried making the changes outlined in the bill would deter people from taking advantage of the program.

Hunger Task Force Director of Advocacy Maureen Fitzgerald said she was concerned adding "layers of bureaucracy" would mean the population increasingly signing up for the FoodShare in the state - those 55 and older - would be less inclined to do so.

"That particular population is reticent to sign up for the program," she said, adding that she'd expect it would "increase hunger for seniors in our community."

WISCONSIN Grocers Association President and CEO Brandon Scholz said the bill would "create a patchwork of nutritional standards that change at the state line," making it difficult for retailers trying to operate multiple stores across the country.

He also advised legislators interested in enacting the legislation to instead push for a new federal standard.

"If you really want to do it, go to D.C., get Congress to make this change and make it across the board," Scholz said.

Meanwhile, most speakers testifying on AB 501 spoke in favor of the bill's approach to addressing nutrition-based concerns.

Still, Scholz, of the Grocers Association, argued that creating lasting consumer change means altering shoppers' behaviors and mentalities - not making more coupons available.

And Midwest Food Processors Association President Nick George said while the bill language specifies fresh produce, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables should also be part of the program.

OVERALL, the bill got a positive reception from those representing the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, the Heart Association and SSM Health, as well as committee members, including Rep. Debra Kolste, who said the bill acknowledges that "eating healthy sometimes costs more."

Kolste, D-Janesville, is among the four Dem representatives co-sponsoring the legislation.

And Rep. Tyler Vorpagel, R-Plymouth, praised the bill authors for exploring a way to "get healthier food choices in people's hands."

The bill would appropriate $425,000 to fund the pilot program - including the discounts on food, although DHS' fiscal estimate concluded an additional $175,000 in general purpose revenue would be needed to both administer the program and contract for an independent evaluation of it.

Bill co-author Harsdorf, R-River Falls, said of the 2,000 FoodShare households that would participate in the 10-month pilot program, 1,000 would be in Milwaukee, 500 would be in Dane County and the remaining 500 would be in rural areas.

WisPolitics.com is a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service specializing in coverage of state government and politics.

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