COLUMBIA — A South Carolina lawmaker is challenging Gov. Nikki Haley and the state’s Department of Social Services director to try to eat healthy foods on a food stamp budget for one week.
“If the governor and director (Lillian) Koller accept my challenge, they will quickly see that struggling South Carolinians aren’t eating unhealthily because they want to,” Democratic Rep. Bakari Sellers said Friday. “Sometimes, it is hard to understand the plight of the poor until you walk a mile in their shoes.”
State officials on Thursday said they had asked the federal agency that administers the food stamp program to discuss ways to change it.
About 878,000 people in South Carolina receive about $1.4 billion in benefits each year through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Koller told participants at an obesity meeting in Columbia. That program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Koller said she had written to federal officials to ask them for a conversation about ways to change how the program is used in South Carolina.
“That’s a lot of federal dollars in our state,” Koller said. “We need to make it work for South Carolinians, to help us make better choices and have lots and lots of healthy food options.”
Because SNAP is a federal program, Koller would need USDA permission to make any changes to it or place restrictions on purchases made in the state. Alcohol and tobacco products are the only prohibited items, but Koller said she planned to ask the federal government for a waiver to cut the list of allowed items in South Carolina to healthy purchases. Starting next month, a series of meetings will be held around the state to solicit public input on how the program should be changed.
Sellers said poverty and obesity is not caused just by unhealthful foods, but also by expenses and lack of access to better alternatives. He said a better plan is to start in schools and keep unhealthful foods away from children.
Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the governor will not accept the challenge, and suggested that Sellers join the healthy eating effort.
“It’s a serious issue, not just another political opportunity for state Rep. Sellers to exploit for personal gain. When he implies that (food-stamp) participants are unable to make healthy choices, he insults them,” Godfrey said. “This is an opportunity for leaders like state Rep. Sellers to work with the governor, who grew up in his district, on fighting obesity, the No. 1 killer of South Carolinians.”
If allowed to pursue a waiver, South Carolina would be the only state to do so. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has rejected at least one such proposal before – in 2011, it refused a waiver request that would have allowed New York City to ban using food stamps to buy sugary drinks, such as sodas.
Dr. Marion Burton of the state Department of Health and Human Services also said at Thursday’s meeting that the state would now officially classify obesity as a disease, something he said would allow health care providers to treat it more directly and allow coverage from Medicaid benefits.