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Tuesday, Feb 08 2011 11:00 PM

No junk food for food stamps, Rubio says

BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

We've all heard the stories -- true or not -- of food stamp recipients filling their grocery carts with potato chips, doughnuts, soda pop, candy and other products commonly known as junk food.

This week, state Sen. Michael Rubio will introduce legislation that would prohibit food stamps from being used to purchase "junk food" or prepared meals at fast-food restaurants.

"The question is what should we be using taxpayer funds to purchase," the Bakersfield Democrat said Tuesday. "In my opinion, we should be focusing on what people need, not what they want."

Those needs include foods found in the traditional food pyramid, he said, including breads and cereals, meats, beans, nuts, dairy products and other protein sources, and lots of fruits and vegetables.

Rubio's idea is not yet an official Senate bill. But it came to light Tuesday when he appeared before the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to argue against a proposal that would have allowed disabled and homeless recipients in that county to use food stamps -- now accessed through a debit card -- to purchase restaurant foods.

It's an option known as the Restaurant Meals Program, and it's been in place for years in five counties, including Sacramento, Los Angeles and Santa Clara, said California Restaurant Association spokesman Daniel Conway.

Because Rubio's bill has not yet been introduced, it would be premature for the association to take a position, Conway said. But he has concerns that the well-meaning legislation could have unintended consequences.

"Initiated at the federal level, the intent was to find a place for individuals who are homeless or disabled to access hot food," Conway said.

More than 1,000 restaurants in Los Angeles County alone participate in the program, offering choices from fast food to ethnic cuisine. Participating restaurants must offer price points to recipients that are lower than regular menu prices.

The Fresno board defeated the measure Tuesday.

Michael Turnipseed, executive director of the Kern County Taxpayers Association, said Rubio has long shown a concern for children's health, so he wasn't surprised to see the freshman senator heading in this direction.

When one considers the exploding public health costs associated with rising obesity rates and the incidence of diabetes, Turnipseed said, it makes fiscal sense to steer public food dollars toward healthier choices.

"I certainly have no opposition," he said.

Pat Cheadle, director of the Kern County Department of Human Services, said there are 50,273 food stamp cases -- families and individuals -- in Kern County. Now known as CalFresh, economic pressures have increased the caseload from 43,128 about a year ago.

Cheadle noted that education programs are already in place to help recipients learn about healthy eating and lifestyles. Participants are given tips on how extending a food budget by making good shopping choices.

And the county has established an obesity task force to further address public health concerns, she added.

Alcoholic beverages and tobacco products have always been on the prohibited list, and with digital technology in supermarkets, it's possible that only foods that fit the state's definition of staple products could be coded to match the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards used by CalFresh recipients.

Rubio said he spoke with a woman Tuesday who said, after losing her job, she was new to the CalFresh program.

"She said she was shocked to find what she could buy with food stamps," Rubio said.

"We need to be good stewards of tax dollars," he added. "At the same time we can create a healthier state -- and potentially even save lives."

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