House Republican to Food Stamp Users: No Soup for You

House Republicans seek to cut $40 billion in food stamps.

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Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., a physician, wants to restrict the kinds of foods SNAP recipients can purchase.

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In the House of Representatives, Republicans are looking for a series of ways to reform and cut the country's food stamp program.

The latest attempt is to keep the poor away from junk food.

[READ: House Looks to Cut $40 Billion From Food Stamps]

A 2012 Yale study showed that food stamp recipients spent roughly $2 billion a year on sugary beverages like soda.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., a physician, introduced the Healthy Food Choices Act on Tuesday, which would severely restrict what kinds of foods food stamp recipients can purchase at the grocery store. The bill comes as the House begins to debate cutting $40 billion to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, as part of its two-piece farm bill.

Roe's legislation would update SNAP's health guidelines and streamline them so they are the same as the standards for the Women, Infants and Children program, another family food program intended to be supplemental.

"I've seen how the WIC program helps empower families receiving assistance to use taxpayer dollars to purchase healthy, wholesome foods. If these guidelines are good and healthy enough for women and children, then SNAP recipients should also benefit from adhering to the same standards," Roe said in a released statement about his bill.

But food rights advocates argue the change would be drastic and significantly limit the purchasing power of those enrolled in SNAP. Individuals enrolled in the WIC program have specific rules that must be met when purchasing food. For example, soup, white potatoes, canned salsa, white rice and milk or orange juice with added calcium cannot be purchased under WIC.

[OPINION: Cutting Food Stamps Isn't Leadership]

"The food basket for WIC is very very limited," says Diane Schanzenbach, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research who studies food consumption and economics. "This bill is also blocking them from buying lots of other nutritious food. It is not fair to frame this as restricting junk food alone, when is also restricts a lot of other items."

In South Carolina and Wisconsin, efforts are underway to implement similar proposals, but states that work in coordination with USDA must get the federal agency sign off on its plans. So far, Roe says USDA has opposed the state level efforts.

The rising costs of health foods is also a major concern for groups watching the bill's progress. According to the Consumer Price Index, the cost of fruits and vegetables have climbed faster than the cost of cereals, sugar and even meat, making it more difficult for those on small budgets to get enough healthy foods to live off of.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Distance also impedes an individual's ability to access healthy food. The USDA estimates that nearly 6 million families without access to cars live in food deserts: urban areas where a grocery store is more than a half mile away and rural areas where a store is more than 1 mile away. In some cases, convenience stores become the default food source.

Graph showing 2013 estimates of where food deserts exist in the U.S., areas where residents live more than 1 mile from a grocery store in an urban area or more than 10 miles in rural areas. (USDA)

Roe recognizes there are obstacles to food access, but argues his bill might be an opportunity to engage in that debate.

[ALSO: Food Stamp Bill in Limbo in the House]

"Access to healthy foods is a challenge for many Americans, and that's something that we should take a look at as part of a broader debate," Roe said in an emailed statement. "WIC standards aren't perfect and may be able to be improved. What I'm concerned about is that taxpayer dollars that are intended to help combat hunger are being used for junk food instead of using SNAP to encourage healthy dietary habits."

A monthly Gallup survey out Wednesday showed 20 percent of Americans are struggling to afford any kind of food, the highest percentage since 2011.

"Think about how much worse that would be if in this time of great economic peril, we ripped new holes in the safety net," Schanzenbach says. "Implying food stamps are broken is not grounded in reality."

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