Fact Check

Wisconsin Bans Poor People from Buying Shellfish, Potatoes and Ketchup?

Rumor: Wisconsin has passed a bill banning poor people from purchasing shellfish, potatoes, and ketchup.

Published May 16, 2015


Claim:   Wisconsin has passed a bill banning poor people from purchasing shellfish, potatoes, and ketchup.


FALSE: Wisconsin has passed a bill banning poor people from purchasing shellfish, potatoes, and ketchup.
TRUE: Wisconsin has passed a bill that (if enacted as law) would bar food stamp recipients from buying shellfish or spending more than one-third of their benefits on foodstuffs such as non-white potatoes and ketchup.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, May 2015]

Wisconsin GOP Passes Bill Banning Poor People From Buying Shellfish, Potatoes And Ketchup.

Is this true?


Origins:   Recents months have seen efforts by lawmakers in several states to limit what recipients of food stamps and other forms of public assistance may purchase with those benefits. For example, a member of the Missouri legislature introduced a bill that would bar recipients of supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP) from using their benefits to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, seafood or steak. And Kansas passed a law prohibiting recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds from spending those monies on a variety of goods and services:

No TANF cash assistance shall be used to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, lottery tickets, concert tickets, professional or collegiate sporting event tickets or tickets for other entertainment events intended for the general public or sexually oriented adult materials. No TANF cash assistance shall be used in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, parimutuel facility, or sexually oriented business or any retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment in which performers disrobe or perform in an unclothed state for entertainment, or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.

Similarly, in May 2015, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill (Assembly Bill 177) that would require those who receive food stamps to spend at least two-thirds of their benefits on foodstuffs designated by the state as nutritional items. The list of allowed nutritional items includes meat, fish, fresh produce, and white potatoes, but specifically excludes food stamps from being used for purchases of crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish:

Under this bill, DHS must require that not less than 67 percent of the SNAP benefits used by a recipient in a month be used to purchase any of the following foods: foods that are on the list of foods authorized for the federal special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children (WIC foods); beef; pork; chicken; fish; fresh produce; and fresh, frozen, and canned white potatoes. In addition, DHS must prohibit using SNAP benefits for the purchase of crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish.

The larger list of allowed foodstuffs excludes such items as white potatoes, nuts, cranberry sauce, popsicles, spaghetti sauce, soup, ketchup, pickles, baked beans, flavored peanut butter, flavored milk, and brown eggs.

Contrary to various inaccurate headlines, however, the proposed law (if fully passed and enacted as law) would not "ban" food stamp recipients from purchasing these food items; rather, it would restrict them from spending more than one-third of their SNAP benefits on such foodstuffs. It's also unlikely the bill will be codified as law, as it would require a federal waiver that no state has ever received:

Because food stamp benefits are funded by the federal government, the state would need to obtain a federal waiver in order to impose restrictions on food purchases.

No state has received such a waiver, but Rep. Brooks said he believes his bill is less restrictive than some proposed in other states and has a better chance of being implemented.

Proponents of the bill argue that it would promote healthier eating habits which would benefit both food stamp recipients and taxpayers:

Republican lawmakers who have pushed the proposal during the current legislative session and in the past say they aren't trying to "stigmatize" or "shame" the about 856,000 people who participate in Wisconsin's food stamp program, which is called FoodShare.

They argue that limiting the purchase of junk food promotes healthy eating, reduces unspecified "abuses" and benefits society in the long run.

"There is a direct financial benefit not just to the individual, which of course is obvious to have better health, but also to state taxpayers and society as a whole," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

Oppoents, however, contend that the bill would neither promote healthier eating nor reduce fraud:

But Democrats say the bill would [stigmatize and shame] and that current perceptions about abuse of the system are based on nothing but anecdotal evidence.

"It's a restriction that's designed just to make the lives of those that are already struggling that much harder," said Rep. Lisa Subeck. "And instead, we should be focusing not on the foods people buy but on putting people to work by creating jobs that get people off of FoodShare."

To illustrate Democrats' opposition, Rep. Evan Goyke held a platter of four Wisconsin cheeses.

All four were cheddar. One was shredded and three were in block form. Three displayed flags that said "GOP Prohibited." One flag said "GOP Approved."

The approved cheese was a block of mild cheddar. Two sharp cheddars — one shredded and one block — were not approved. One mild cheddar was not approved because it was too large, Goyke said.

"The stated goals of this bill are nutrition and fraud," said Rep. Mark Spreitzer. "When you look at something like this cheese plate, there's no evidence of sharp cheddar fraud. People are not buying sharp cheddar in order to defraud FoodShare, and there's no nutritional difference. So if those are the stated goals, the bill is not accomplishing either."

Last updated:   16 May 2015


    Opoien, Jessie.   "Wisconsin Lawmakers to Discuss Bill Restricting Food Stamp Purchases."

    The [Madison] Capital Times.   30 April 2015.

    Phillip, Abby.   "Wisconsin Wants to Discourage the Poor from Spending Food Stamps on Junk Food."

    The Washington Post.   14 May 2015.

    Stein, Jason.   "Assembly Passes Food Stamp Restrictions, Drug Testing."

    [Milwaukee] Journal Sentinel.   14 May 2015.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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