Retailers offer few nutritious foods to customers using food stamps

A FOX6 Investigation finds the federal governments own anti-hunger program may be feeding the problem. FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn finds some food stamp retailers sell nothing, but junk food.

The federal food stamps program is a billion dollar program in Wisconsin> alone, and that money is supposed to help struggling families put healthy food> on the table. A lot of it is being spent on potato chips, candy bars and soft drinks.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), still known as food stamps, is a federal program aimed at making sure low income families have food on the table. In Wisconsin, it's called food share.

Benefits are distributed electronically on a Quest Card that works like a debit card and can be used at thousands of authorized retailers all over Wisconsin.

Tonya Spencer has a quest card and like most of the program's participants she uses it to shop at full service grocery stores. According to the USDA, 16% of all SNAP benefits are redeemed at mom and pop corner stores, gas stations and even liquor stores.

SNAP user Linda Garvey called us to ask why the liquor store in her West Allis neighborhood is allowed to accept Quest, considering that under the program rules you can't buy alcohol or tobacco with the card. "Food stamps are to make sure kids aren't going hungry not make sure I can drink and smoke cigarettes," Garvey says.

When we took our hidden cameras into County Beer and Liquor, we didn't find nutritional staples needed to feed a family either.

In fact, the only food we could find was a rack of potato chips, a cooler full of ice cream sandwiches and a few boxes of corn flakes.

El Charro on Milwaukee's south side is another Quest retailer with refrigerators full of booze, juices and soft drinks. They had racks of chips and candy, but just one for milk, eggs and hot dogs.

It's the same at Sundeep Liquor on Milwaukee's northwest side. The store has plenty of junk food, but little for a family to actually sustain itself.

Earlier this year State Representative Samantha Kerkman requested a full-scale audit of the state's foodshare program and says our investigation is one more reason to take a closer look. Rep. Kerkman says, "The purpose of the program is to provide money to allow people to have food. To buy bread, meat so they can make hamburgers and those things. It's not to go out and buy soda and other things that people who are on a budget don't even purchase."

State Senator Lena Taylor says Quest users should be able to buy some junk food, but she wants them to have healthier choices. Especially those who have no choice, but to walk to the nearest corner store. "One could argue that that standard at the very least could be lifted to say that you have to at least have some nutritional items."

Actually federal regulation already require it. According to the USDA, participating retailers must sell at least three varieties of four basic items. Those groups are meat, bread or cereal, vegetables or fruits and dairy products.

At least two of those good groups must include perishable items. The USDA guidelines say perishable foods must be available everyday. After stopping by several convenience stores we found that these requirements mean nothing when there is no enforcement.

If you're wondering how much of the billion dollars in Quest card purchases goes to junk food, nobody knows. The USDA doesn't track the types of food that are purchased.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked President Obama to allow New York City to ban soft drinks for food stamp users.

Mayor Bloomberg's proposal has been harshly attacked by soft drink and food industry lobbyists who call it unfair to food stamp recipients. Bloomberg says New Yorkers spend up to $135 million a year on sugar sweetened drinks. He calls it counter productive to the mission of the food stamp program.

Read the USDA's minimum standards for food stamp retailers.

If you have any news tips for the FOX6 Investigators please call 414-586-2777.