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Don't tell food stamp recipients what to eat, House panel says

A legislative effort to restrict the use of cash assistance benefits for the needy passed its second House committee Monday. But the most controversial portion of the proposal -- a lengthy list of snacks and junk foods that can't be purchased using food stamps -- may be doomed.

Both Republicans and Democrats alike said they were opposed to banning soda, cakes, and candy bars under the food stamp program. Government should not be telling people what types of food they can eat, several members of the House Health and Human Services Access Subcommittee said.

“Even if they happen to be poor, even if they happen to be on food stamps,” Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said. “It’s just not our core mission, and I’m personally offended by it.”

Young still voted in favor of House Bill 1401, which the committee approved along a party-line vote. Rep. Shawn Harrison, also of Tampa, was the only Republican to vote “no” with the Democrats. However, Young vowed to introduce amendments at the legislation's next committee stop that would delete the section she disagrees with.

Several trade groups representing grocery and convenience stores also registered their opposition to the proposal, including the Florida Retail Federation, Florida Beverage Association and Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, the bill sponsor, said he would work with Young and others to draft amendments that can be introduced when the proposal is discussed at the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, is sponsoring the companion legislation, Senate Bill 1658, that is also making its way through committees. It is Storms who wanted the proposal to restrict the types of food that can be purchased using food stamps, Plakon said Monday, but it will be hard for the legislation to move forward with that language remaining.

"I suspect for the good parts to move forward I'm going to need to make some substantive changes, particularly to the food stamp portion of it," he said.

His top priority is ensuring that people receiving cash assistance aren’t using their government-issued debit cards to withdraw money from ATMs at casinos, internet cafes and strip clubs. The issue was brought to his attention after Plakon watched an investigative report on WBBH-TV, Ft. Myers’ NBC affiliate.

Though Democrats questioned whether such abuses of the Electronic Benefit Transfer card program are widespread, this portion of the proposal was applauded by many.

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