Vitamins could be covered under food-stamp plan

WASHINGTON -- Poor people soon could face a new choice at the supermarket: vitamins or food.

Food stamp recipients could use their benefits to buy vitamin and mineral supplements under Senate legislation overhauling agriculture and nutrition programs.

"You can use food stamps to buy potato chips, but you can't use them to buy multivitamins for your children," said Seth Boffeli, a spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee, which recently approved the bill.

Herbal supplements such as gingko biloba or St. John's Wort still would not be permitted under the measure, inserted into the farm bill by the committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Nutrition scientists worry that people will substitute supplements for nutritious food. The produce industry is concerned that the plan will cut into sales of fruits and vegetables. The Clinton administration recommended against the vitamin benefit.

"Food is very important, and the food stamp program is there to ensure that people are food secure, that they're not hungry," said Lynn Parker, director of child nutrition programs for the Food Research and Action Center, a research and advocacy group.

At least 22 states provide vitamin supplements to poor people under their Medicaid programs, the center says. All states must provide prenatal vitamins.

Food stamp benefits vary widely by income; the average recipient receives about 78 cents per meal. A woman, who earns $400 a month, and her child would qualify for less than $200 a month in food stamps.

"I don't think they could buy vitamins and food and have enough. They can barely buy food with the food stamps," said Teresa Moorman, an outreach worker with the Los Angeles regional food bank.

The Agriculture Department, which runs the food stamp program, said in a 1999 study that the poor have similar vitamin intakes compared with the rest of the population, and there was no need for supplements.