Can States Actually Change the Food Stamps Law?!

(Last Updated On: May 2, 2019)

Texas lawmakers want to prevent people from using food stamps to buy junk food, but do state lawmakers have the authority to change the way food stamps are processed?

What is happening to the Texas food stamps law?

State representative Briscoe Cain wants to prevent people from using food stamps funds to purchase energy drinks, soda, cookies, candy or potato chips. He claims that he is concerned about diabetes and other health problems, but he has not proposed any legislation that would improve the overall health of wealthier Texans. If passed, his food stamps restrictions would go into effect in early September.

Texas has seen several proposals to curb and change the food stamps policies. In April, state lawmakers passed legislation that would expand the state’s work requirements. They also proposed that EBT cards should include photos of the recipient to prevent fraud.

What is currently allowed under the federal food stamps law?

The federal food stamps law, as written by the USDA, currently allows people to buy many different things. For example, you can buy seeds, birthday cakes, certain gift baskets and more. We have a full list here.

According to the USDA representative who responded to my email inquiry,

“SNAP is authorized under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (the Act), which defines eligible foods as any food or food product for home consumption, including seeds and plants that produce food.

Per the Act, the following items are not eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits: alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot food, and any food sold for on premise consumption. Nonfood items, such as pet foods, soaps, paper products, medicines and vitamins, household supplies, grooming items and cosmetics, are also ineligible items and cannot be purchased with food stamps.”

Can Texas really change the food stamps law?

On the USDA website, it says,

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program operates under the Food Stamp Act of 1977, as amended. Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) staff write rules (regulations) to implement the Act and changes in it, and publish those rules in the Federal Register. On occasion, FNS grants waivers of sections of the rules to SNAP State agencies to allow deviations from standard procedures to allow for temporary conditions, to allow more effective and efficient administration, or to accommodate unique local conditions.”

It appears, based on this statement, that states can be granted waivers from the federal law for three reasons: (1) to allow for temporary conditions, (2) to allow more effective and efficient administration or (3) to accommodate unique local conditions.

I am obviously not a lawyer, but it appears that Texas’ attempt to restrict junk food sales is not temporary and not uniquely local. That means they will have to convince the federal government that this change is necessary to allow more effective or efficient administration of the program.

I don’t think that’s necessarily likely. It will require a lot more bureaucracy, red tape and government control to enact this kind of legislation. That is neither effective or efficient.

To confirm, I reached out to the USDA directly. I asked, “Do states have the right to restrict what can be purchased with food stamps? For example, can Texas actually prevent people from purchasing “junk food” (sodas, chips, etc) with their food stamps card?”

A representative responded to me with the following statement:

“Since the current definition of SNAP eligible food items is a specific part of the Food and Nutrition Act, any change to this definition and the types of food that can be purchased with SNAP benefits would require action by Congress.”

There you have it, folks. According to the USDA itself, Texas can’t do this because redefining what you can buy with food stamps must be done through an act of Congress.

What should you do?

Even though Texas is grossly overstepping with this legislation, it is important to make your voice heard.

Write to your elected officials and voice your support for food stamps freedom. Many of our politicians have little to no experience living on a low income, so explaining what you actually buy and use your food stamps for can make a difference.

If we don’t stand up for our rights, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are taken away. Make your voices heard, especially when issues like this arise.

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