Bill would expand DA BUX food program

  • Locally grown fruits and vegetables are shown. (Tribune-Herald file photo)

A state Senate bill that would eliminate a daily cap on a dollar-for-dollar match for supplemental nutrition assistance program beneficiaries under DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks program has cleared its first House hurdle.

Senate Bill 512, Senate Draft 2, which was adopted by the Senate in late February, passed the House Agriculture Committee unamended Friday by an 8-0 vote. Two of the aye votes were from Reps. Chris Todd of Hilo and Nicole Lowen of Kona, both Democrats.

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The bill would expand the state’s DA BUX program. The program currently provides for a $10 daily dollar-for-dollar match by the state — using federal funds — for SNAP purchases of Hawaii-grown fresh fruits and vegetables at a grocery store, farmers market, farm stand, community-supported agriculture site, or other direct food retailer that participates in SNAP.

The measure, which would lift that $10 a day limit, is intended to provide low-income people easier access to healthier food choices and to help the local farmers and ranchers.

The bill also has been referred to the committees on Health, Human Services and Homelessness and Finance, neither of which had scheduled a hearing as of late Monday afternoon.

The text of the legislation states the coronavirus pandemic “has placed a financial strain on many local families, including farmers, ranchers and many in Hawaii’s agricultural industry.”

“Multiple COVID-19 restrictions and the drop in customer sales among retailers and other businesses across the state have led to decreased purchases from local farmers and ranchers, with some having to consider scaling back operations or downsizing their workforce.”

The current version of the bill received more than 100 pages of written testimony, almost all in favor.

Organizations submitting testimony include: The Food Basket, Hawaii Farm Bureau, Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, Catholic Charities Hawaii, Ulupono Initiative, HMSA, Early Childhood Action Strategy, Blue Zones Project, HOPE Services Hawaii, Neighborhood Place of Puna, Land Use Research Foundation of Hawaii, Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, Hawaii Public Health Institute, Hawaii Pacific Health, Local Food Coalition, Hawaii Community Foundation, Hawaii Public Health Association, Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, American Diabetes Organization, Kamehameha Schools, AlohaCare, Hawaii Primary Care Association, Kaiser Permanente, Hawaii Food Industry Association and Hawaii Children’s Action Network.

The American Heart Association wrote it supports the intent of the bill — which contains an amendment adding locally produced “healthy proteins” to the list of foods eligible for DA BUX — but is seeking a clearer definition of what constitutes a healthy protein.

During the hearing, AHA Hawaii spokesman Don Weisman called that omission “problematic from our end, because not all proteins are healthy.”

“If you incentivize eating proteins, you should be incentivizing eating the healthy proteins and … not incentivizing things that will actually hurt their health — things like more fatty cuts of meat or processed meat that is high in sodium that could increase blood pressure,” Weisman said. He added he didn’t want to leave the definition of healthy proteins “up to retailers.”

Weisman said that federal funds — which the state is expecting to tap for DA BUX matching funds — couldn’t be used for proteins.

The University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Services also supports the bill’s intent, but opined the bill “puts an unrealistic onus on the recipient to search out specific sources of food.”

Other bills passed by the committee include:

• Senate Bill 855, Senate Draft 1, which extends the sunset date for the coffee berry borer pesticide subsidy program to June 30, 2023, and require the Department of Agriculture to compile a list of certain pesticides. The measure passed, unamended, by an 8-0 vote. It has also been referred to the Finance Committee, which hadn’t scheduled a hearing.

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• Senate Bill 343, Senate Draft 1, which would make sexual abuse of an animal a felony also passed, unamended by an 8-0 vote. It has also been referred to the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, which hadn’t scheduled a hearing.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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