Would ‘Junk Food Bill’ be good news for the poor?

Roy Beth Kelley

By Roy Beth Kelley
Special Contributor

Football coach Vic Wallace used to tell his team, “Football fires me up!” Some things just fire me up, including the children and youth at Dover UMC and House Bill 1035 (I’ll call it the Junk Food Bill).

This bill is pending in the 2017 Arkansas legislative session that is currently underway. It attempts to legislate what foods are nutritionally appropriate for families receiving federal SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as food stamps). The bill proposes that the Arkansas Department of Human Services establish a list of foods and beverages that are deemed to have “sufficient nutritional value” using the guidelines set out in the “WIC” program designed to feed women, infants, and children.

Because SNAP is federally funded, the state would have to ask the United States Department of Agriculture for a waiver to implement this plan. Similar bills have been introduced in other states over the last few years, and those that have passed have been denied a waiver by the USDA. However, the potential for USDA policy changes under President Trump gives hope to sponsoring legislators that a waiver might be granted.

As I write, the bill has passed the house committee and may be law in our state by the time you read this. Either way, it is true that the Junk Food Bill addresses real issues that face our state—poverty, hunger, obesity and poor health. A lot of Arkansans live in poverty, and a lot of Arkansans are obese and unhealthy. But a lot of us who are not living in poverty are also obese and unhealthy. I kind of wish I was forbidden from buying candy bars and chocolate chip cookies. I kind of wish I had to buy nutritionally sufficient foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. I probably wouldn’t struggle with that extra 10 (or so) pounds!

But… shopping that way is so much more expensive than buying macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and ramen noodles. Unfortunately, the Junk Food Bill doesn’t provide additional state funding for families to purchase foods of “sufficient nutritional value.” It doesn’t provide for education about nutrition, wise shopping or tips on how to cook broccoli so that kids will eat it. And most importantly, the bill doesn’t address the core underlying issues of the need for a living wage for all Arkansans and the rejection of racism and classism in our public policy.

I’m fired up because according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 72 percent of SNAP participants in Arkansas live in families with children, and 33 percent of participants live in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities. I’m fired up because 41 percent of people receiving SNAP in my state are working families who still don’t make enough to feed their kids. I’m fired up because SNAP gives families an average of $1.28 per meal, per person to feed their families, and that will simply not stretch to buy oranges and grapes, cucumbers and cauliflower. And I’m fired up because I see the faces of these families every single week. There are families who will be affected by this legislation; they are my friends, and they are members of my church.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came to proclaim good news for the poor. How can we, the church, do the same? How can we bridge the gap that exists for families living in poverty now and even if the Junk Food Bill becomes law?

The Rev. Kelley is appointed to Dover UMC as a part-time local pastor, and is a full-time student at United Theological Seminary.

Interested in experiencing what it’s like to shop for food using SNAP benefits? Take the SNAP Challenge, outlined here. To learn more about advocating for hungry children and families in Arkansas, visit http://200kReasons.arumc.org/resources.

With the 200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger initiative, the United Methodists of Arkansas seek to engage all of the state’s United Methodist churches in efforts to significantly reduce childhood hunger through feeding ministries, public witness and education for long-term stability.