Sign in the window of a store stating that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are accepted.

Iowa lawmakers propose severe restrictions for food assistance

© iStock - jetcityimage
Mark Moran

(Iowa News Service) A Republican-backed bill in the Iowa Legislature seeks to put strict new limits on which foods people could buy at the grocery store using public-assistance benefits. 

House Bill 3 would limit people to items on the state's WIC list, supplemental nutrition for Women, Infants and Children. 

The bill would restrict the purchase of such items as grains, baked, refried or chili beans, and fresh and frozen meats. Even American cheese would be off-limits

Luke Elzinga, chair of the Iowa Hunger Coalition, said the extensive list of banned items includes many foods that people rely on every day. 

"No flour, butter, cooking oil," said Elzinga. "No herbs and spices, not even salt and pepper. No bottled water. No frozen prepared goods. Even the items that are on the list are very strict in the specific brands and types of things."

Any changes to Iowa's nutrition assistance programs would require approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Almost 40 Republicans support the bill, saying it is needed to ensure the "integrity" of the program. It moves next to committee. 

Elzinga said the proposal sends a message that the state doesn't trust low-income Iowans to buy the food their family needs, and ignores the choices people make based on culture, specific nutritional needs or even to avoid food allergies. 

He said it would also create a stigma for shoppers who are stopped at the cash register when certain items don't qualify. 

"It has to have an effect on Iowans' mental health, who are struggling right now to feed their families," said Elzinga, "to hear that the state's leadership is going to try to tell them what they can and cannot buy for their families to meet their food needs, when food prices are increasing like they have."

The bill also requires people who receive food benefits to be working, looking for work or in job training. 

It would also raise the bar to apply for Medicaid in Iowa, which Elzinga said would jeopardize people's physical health as well.