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Politics & Government

Controversy Surrounds Wisconsin Food Stamp Bill That Limits Buying Options

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Wisconsin might restrict the types of groceries people can buy with FoodShare benefits.

On Thursday, an Assembly committee will listen to people's comments on the proposed new rules for the program designed to help low income people purchase food. Critics question whether the changes would be legal, because 100 percent of the funding for FoodShare comes from the federal government.

Under the proposed bill, Wisconsin food stamp users would have to spend two-thirds of their monthly allotment on what the state would define as "healthy" foods.

The bill's author is GOP Rep. Robert Brooks. His plan includes striking "crab, lobster, shrimp and any other shell fish" from the list of allowable foods.

“This is not a junk food bill. It’s just here to get the program back to its intended purpose and that’s to supply basic supplemental nutritional assistance,” Brooks says.

The list of state authorized groceries would include:

Foods that are on the list of foods authorized for the federal special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC foods); beef; pork; chicken; fish; fresh produce; and fresh, frozen, and canned white potatoes.

The bill would also instruct retailers to swipe benefit cards before scanning food items. The move would allow retailers to identify if someone is attempting to purchase prohibited items.

The Hunger Task Force criticizes the measure, calling it the "supermarket nanny" bill. It insists the proposals would shame people having a hard time and be expensive to administer. Executive director Sherry Tussler says the system would also be illegal, because it would set a double-standard for shoppers.

At the start of the Great Recession, Wisconsin documented an average of 388,000 residents a month using FoodShare benefits. So far this year, the state is averaging nearly 819,000 cases a month.

  “They can’t ask to see your card unless they ask to see my card as well. And so treating people differently under the law, effectively carding someone with FoodShare and not carding someone with a debit card,” Tussler says.

Tussler claims some lawmakers are targeting the FoodShare program for cuts, because one in seven Wisconsin people are using it. She says the state needs more decent-paying jobs.

At the start of the Great Recession, Wisconsin documented an average of 388,000 residents a month using FoodShare benefits. So far this year, the state is averaging nearly 819,000 cases a month.

Two more bills requiring benefit recipients to be tested for drug use will also be under discussion during the April 30 public hearing. People applying for certain job training programs and unemployment benefits would have to pass drug tests to receive benefits. The state would offer treatment options to those who test positive.

According to the Hunger Task Force, the bills' sole purpose appears to be shaming vulnerable people away from using federal entitlement programs.

Supporters say they want to deter or weed out abuse of benefits.

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