Maine governor – at odds with Feds – takes a stand against junk food

Gov. Paul LePage has said no to junk food for SNAP participants, or he will pull the program. More states are levying taxes and restrictions against junk food. Have tough stances on sugary foods been working in other states? 

Seth Perlman/AP
An Illinois grocery store is well stocked with soft drinks.

Maine's Republican governor Paul LePage has taken a stand against the US Department of Agriculture, junk food and soft drinks, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) all in one fell swoop.

Governor LePage has been fighting to remove junk food and sugary beverages from the list of items that residents can purchase using SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps. After his proposal to remove these items was rejected by the US Department of Agriculture, who funds the program, LePage has said he will move forward to ban these products unilaterally or stop state administration of SNAP altogether.

"Only when Washington politicians stop kowtowing to powerful retail grocer and junk food manufacturing interests will American taxpayers have a respectable food safety net," wrote LePage in a June 17 letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Bangor Daily News Reports. "Beyond the health effects of the federal government's corrupt food stamp policy is the tragedy of billions in wasted taxpayer dollars that buy candy and soda through a program that was originally designed to reduce hunger."

While LePage has made SNAP a focal point during his time in office, asking state legislature to impose restrictions in 2013 and 2015, he is not alone among state politicians who are calling for heavier regulation of junk food.

Thirty cities and states have tried to tax soda in recent years, the Associated Press reports, although most of these have been voted down. Earlier this month Philadelphia imposed a soda tax on soft drinks. The 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax was put in place to raise additional money for civil services, yet the health benefits of a decrease in soda purchases would be an additional bonus said Mayor Jim Kenney.

In 2015, Berkeley, Calif. became the first city to levy a tax soda, increasing the price of a can of soda by 12 cents, Jeremy Wood reported for Food Tank at that time. Advocates of the tax in Berkeley said it was specifically meant to reduce obesity and diabetes rates and generally encourage healthy consumption.

A study by Duke University supported their argument, Mr. Wood writes, showing that a "20 percent soda tax can lead to a decreased caloric intake of almost five percent."

In the year since the tax was imposed researchers say that it's difficult to pinpoint hard data yet on the effect that it's had on consumers in Berkeley. However some researchers are optimistic, not least of all because the tax is generating money from the city's nutrition programs.

Jennifer Falbe, of the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, told the Mercury News, "I would say there is evidence that [the tax] is beginning to work, that it's going in the right direction."

The United States joins other nations in thinking about ways to reduce consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages through these kinds of government regulations. Britain announced this spring that they will tax soda in proportion to how much sugar each drink contains in an 8-ounce serving. Meanwhile, Mexico already taxes junk food.

LePage's move in Maine is more focused on the purchasing habits of a specific demographic subset, not on the larger issue of junk food in the state. And in the wake of the USDA rejection of his proposal, Maine legislators are apprehensive about what such a measure could mean for the nearly 200,000 Maine residents who receive the food assistance, according to the Bangor Daily News.

"Nobody thinks that people on food stamps should be buying snack food and candy and sugary drinks," State legislature Rep. Drew Gattine (D) told the Bangor Daily News. "What we really need to do is find a way to make healthy food more affordable."

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