Soda tops list of food stamp purchases, estimated $13 million a year in Maine

STATEWIDE (WGME) — A new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is revealing the items purchased by a typical family on food stamps.

The report reveals the number one item bought by families on food stamps is soda; in Maine—that adds up to an estimated more than $13 million a year spent on soft drinks.

Until now it's been nearly impossible to track how low-income families are using their food stamp dollars.

About 200,000 Mainers get taxpayer-funded food stamp benefits as part of what's known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

"This study released confirmed our concerns," said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

The study was published by the USDA, which oversees the program, and identifies the top five purchases as:

  1. Soft drinks (5.44%)
  2. Milk (3.85%)
  3. Ground beef (3.05%)
  4. Bag snacks (3.03%)
  5. Cheese (2.83%)

"The program known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance really is not focused on supporting nutritional purchases within the program," Mayhew said.

The report also shows 20 cents of every dollar is spent on sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar. In Maine, that would be about $51 million a year.

"We have a huge problem in this state and throughout the country with obesity. We should be focused on restricting anything that is not nutritional; certainly soda and candy clearly fall in that category," Mayhew said.

Along with several other states, Maine has tried to ban soda and junk food from the program.

USDA has denied every request, saying states are not allowed to restrict food stamp purchases.

Some Maine legislators over the years have told CBS 13 that's the right decision and low-income Mainers shouldn't be shamed for what they buy with food stamps.

"There's no evidence that these types of efforts, this type of ban, on purchasing certain types of food has any impact on the way that people eat," said Rep. Drew Gattine (D-Westbrook) in November 2015.

"Would you want someone not to be able to get cookies for someone's birthday?" State Senator Anne Haskell (D-Portland) asked in January 2015.

The results of USDA research released in November, 2016, confirm that the eating choices of SNAP participants are similar to those of most Americans: We all make many healthy choices, and we all continue to fall short of the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. USDA is committed to a broad range of strategies and incentives designed to promote nutritious diets for all Americans, including incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables, expanding SNAP acceptance at farmers markets, and reforming the SNAP education program, the USDA said in an email to CBS 13.

Commissioner Mayhew said with a new administration in Washington, she will again ask for permission to ban soda and junk food purchases with SNAP benefits.

The American Medical Association is also pushing to remove "sugar-sweetened beverages" from the list of allowable items.

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