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GOP food-stamp bill called a divisive distraction

Legislation that would sharply curtail the choices for Wisconsin residents using the state’s FoodShare program, also known as food stamps, passed the Wisconsin Assembly 68-26 on May 7. The bill’s sponsors said it would encourage recipients to eat more healthily but, according to out state Rep. JoCosta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, it would further stigmatize low-income Wisconsinites.

The bill very nearly had a significant negative impact on Wisconsin dairy producers. Before Zamarripa and a colleague proposed a last-minute amendment, food stamps recipients would have been allowed to purchase only a limited number of dairy products, including those produced in the state. 

“I think it’s a political bill, brought forward as a talking point for the Republicans, so that they can further divide the state by putting a wedge between the middle class and the poor,” Zamarripa said.

Sponsored by state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, AB 110 would limit food stamp recipients to purchasing primarily items approved by the Women Infant and Children supplemental nutrition program. That program is intended for nutritionally at-risk pregnant, breast-feeding and postpartum women, as well as infants and children.

Under AB 110, users would have to limit roughly two-thirds of their food stamp purchases to approved items from WIC lists.

Even Kaufert admitted that no data exists correlating food stamp usage with junk food purchases. He said that he got the idea for the bill based on his own anecdotal experiences and those of his constituents, who say they’ve seen people use food stamps to buy junk food.

Unapproved items would go well beyond chips and candy, however. WIC users are prohibited from using food stamps to buy canned soups, nuts, seasonings and potatoes, among other items. Kaufert slightly retooled the legislation in late April to add provisions for beef, pork, poultry, fruits and vegetables. 

Several dairy items, among them Swiss, sharp cheddar and shredded cheeses, remained prohibited until Zamarripa and Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, introduced an amendment to exclude dairy products and cranberries from the list of prohibited items. 

“Here we are – the dairy state – and we’re limiting people’s access to cheese,” Zamarripa said. “The Republicans make a statement with this – farmers and small businesses are trying to make a case for people to purchase their cheese, and they were putting it on the ‘banned’ list.”

“They have not taken the time to look at any real data,” she added. “Rep. Kaufert just put forward this bill willy-nilly.”

Many food producers and grocers have opposed the bill. In an April 8 statement, the Madison-based Midwest Food Processors Association said, “Though well intentioned, AB 110 will be costly to administer, opens nutrition programs to the subjective whims of bureaucrats, may hurt agricultural jobs in the Midwest and duplicates federal rules.” 

Implementing the legislation would require a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has refused  prior attempts to food stamp choices beyond current prohibitions on hot foods, tobacco, alcohol, pet food, paper products, household supplies, medicines and vitamins. The agency also has said there is no statistical evidence that food stamp recipients are more likely to buy unhealthy food than higher-income consumers. 

About 885,000 Wisconsin residents, roughly 15 percent of the state’s population, receive some kind of public assistance. Zamarripa said AB 110 is an attempt, at their expense, to distract Wisconsin residents from the failures of the Republican leadership. 

When AB 110 was read in committee, Zamarripa pointed out that a large percentage of food stamp recipients are white, drawing accusations of racism from Kaufert. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Mike Nichols echoed that charge in an opinion piece.

“Kaufert was offended by the remark, and should be, because either Zamarripa is a racist herself or – by suggesting proponents of limiting junk food might change their minds if they knew it would affect white people – is suggesting her opponents are,” Nichols wrote.

“People often accuse people of color of ‘playing the race card,’” said Zamarripa, who is Hispanic. “I have never accused any of my colleagues in the Legislature of being a racist. Again, it’s another distraction, like this bill is a distraction from the fact that we’re not creating the jobs that Gov. Walker and the Republicans committed to creating.”

Zamarripa is resigned to the bill’s passage by the Senate. “They also passed (the FoodShare anti-fraud measure),” she said. “Sadly I believe this bill will see the same fate.”

Eight states introduced legislation last year to limit what types of food can be purchased, but none passed a measure.

Food stamp sideshow

The food stamp measure “does nothing to address the issues of the state, which is that we’re 44th in the nation with jobs and dead last in the Midwest – and right now in the midst of the controversy with WEDC,” Zamarripa said.

WEDC is an acronym for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-public agency created by Gov. Scott Walker to replace the Department of Commerce. It has been mired in scandal and failed in its mission to create new jobs.

The non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau reported last month that the agency repeatedly failed to follow basic standards in state law for ensuring the clear and proper use of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. Staffed by unqualified cronies of the governor, the agency has experienced staggering turnover, lost track of more than $50 million in loans and engaged in wasteful and highly questionable expenditures for its politically connected staff.

“It is no wonder why Wisconsin currently ranks 44th in the nation in job growth, 45th in wage growth and dead last in short-term job growth, given that its job creation agency is failing in just about every measurable way possible,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, in a statement.

Instead of the Republican leadership addressing this scandal and the state’s numerous other problems, “we’re trying to implement a (food-stamp) program that’s going to cost us who knows how many thousands of dollars to implement, on the basis of anecdotal stories from the author of the bill,” Zamarripa said. “We’re spending time on this bill because (Kaufert) had to wait too long in line at the grocery store.”

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