Catherine Templeton tends to float trial balloons before they’re filled, which allows them to drift back down for more input.
Two weeks ago, the director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control suggested the state apply for a waiver that would ban the purchase of sugary drinks with food stamps to help reduce obesity in the state.
After getting plenty of feedback, both positive and negative, Templeton now wants to expand the healthy-food requirement. She suggests the state require food-stamp recipients follow the same strict purchase requirements used in the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program.
That would be a huge change. WIC is a federal program, administered by state health agencies, set up in 1972 to provide optimal nutrition of mothers during pregnancy and children in their early years.
The foods that can be paid for with WIC benefits are limited. Some of the items on the list include plain milk, domestic cheese, high-iron and low-sugar cereals, whole-wheat or whole-grain breads, 100 percent fruit juices and smooth-only peanut butter. Fresh fruits and vegetables are allowed, but not white potatoes.
The WIC list includes few adult meats, so Templeton suggests a “WIC plus meats” plan.
She expects pushback, but she asks, “please let’s at least have that conversation.”
Templeton is working with the S.C. Department of Social Services, which manages the federal food-stamp program officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The goal is to have a preliminary proposal before the Feb. 21 meeting of a statewide obesity coalition.
“I think there’s an appetite for this,” Templeton said. “I think the time is right.”
An appointee of Gov. Nikki Haley, Templeton jumped into the fat fight last year by suggesting state anti-obesity resources be focused on a few rural counties with the highest rates of obesity.
Now she’s talking about government food stamps used to provide nutrition to the poor. The government shouldn’t allow food stamps to be used to buy unhealthy food that contribute to later health problems, she said.
South Carolina has about 875,000 SNAP recipients, and about one-third of the state’s residents are obese, according to state health statistics.
Her initial trial balloon drew a letter from the S.C. Beverage Association detailing its concerns with the feasibility and rationale in banning the use of food stamps for sugary drinks. Jay Hicks, president of the beverage association, said he was especially concerned that Templeton was focusing on beverages alone.
Hicks also noted that members of the beverage association have worked with state health leaders in recent years to remove full-calorie soft drinks from vending machines in schools. Templeton agreed that the beverage association has been a responsible partner in the school health effort.
The beverage association letter also detailed the potential problems determining exactly which foods are healthy, getting restrictions approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, and enforcing restrictions on the purchase of those foods at retailers.
Those arguments prompted Templeton to turn to the WIC program limits, which already are approved by the USDA and implemented at retailers.
“If you go to WIC-plus-meat, then you’re done,” Templeton said. “All the arguments fade away.”
But it won’t be that easy.
In recent years, the feds have turned down 10 food-stamp waiver requests from other states or localities. The response to a New York City request in 2011 made it clear, the feds only will consider a focused waiver that impacts a limited number of people.