FOOD STAMPS: Bill Would Allow Recipients to Buy Vitamins
The Senate Agriculture Committee is considering a "controversial" bill that would allow food stamps to be used to purchase vitamin and mineral supplements, the Washington Post reports. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the bill's sponsors, last week said during a videotaped address to the Council for Responsible Nutrition that individuals using food stamps can buy "Twinkies, Fritos and Ding-Dongs, but they can't buy vitamin C or E." Under the legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), food stamps could be used to purchase vitamins and mineral supplements such as calcium, but not botanical or herbal products such as St. John's Wort, echinacea and saw palmetto. While a "number of medical groups," including the National Osteoporosis Foundation, support the legislative effort, some nutrition advocacy groups have criticized the bill, saying that low-income families might choose dietary supplements over food. Lynn Parker, director of child nutrition programs and nutrition policy for the Food Research and Action Center, noted, "Then [low-income families] will be even worse off nutritionally than before." A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study seems to support that theory, the Post reports. The study determined that it would cost a family of three about $5.20 per month to take multivitamins every day, adding up nationally to between $5 million and $19 million per year, "money that likely would be shifted from buying foods." But the study also found "no income disparity in getting vitamins and minerals from food," adding that "food stamp recipients have better nutrient profiles than their non-recipient counterparts." But if Congress were to expand what food stamps can buy, the report notes that the "criteria for defining eligible supplements needs to be clear to manufacturers, food retailers and recipients," adding that the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service will have the "additional challenge" of monitoring and enforcing compliance to these criteria. Other advocates have suggested that "teaching low-income Americans how to eat well may be the better approach to providing vitamins and minerals" (Squires, Washington Post, 9/26).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.