If the point of a plastic bag fee is get people to stop using plastic bags, then it may not make sense to give the bags away to people who can't afford the fee, though the Texas Department of State Health Services says poor people on federal aid shouldn't have to pay for grocery bags.
A few weeks ago, the state wrote to Dallas City Hall asking if people on food assistance programs would be exempted from paying five cents for disposable bags under the city's new ordinance. If not, Dallas may be breaking the law, argued Mary Alice Winfree, a manager with the state's WIC program. (That's short for Women, Infants and Children, the federally funded program that supports low-income new moms and their kids).
"Will grocers be exempted from charging the five cent per bag fee to individuals purchasing food with WIC and SNAP benefits?" she wrote to Green Dallas, the city's office that promotes environmentally friendly initiatives.
The answer to her question is "No," though others involved with the passage of the ordinance might add, "but come on, dude."
Dallas City Council this year finally caught up to all the other eco-conscious cities that have cracked down on disposable bags. Beginning January, stores will have to charge shoppers five cents for any single-use bag, paper or plastic. Cities like Los Angeles, Boulder, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., have passed similar ordinances, but added exemptions for people on WIC or SNAP (food stamp) assistance. The Dallas ordinance does not waive the fee for poor people. If someone on food stamps forgets their reusable bag at home, then they'll have to fork over five cents for paper or plastic, and the state says that's a problem.
As Winfree's email goes on:
If not, it appears the City of Dallas ordinance may conflict with the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Federal Regulations, specifically 7 CFR Part 246.12 (c) No charge for authorized supplemental foods. The regulation states, "The State agency must ensure that participants receive their authorized supplemental food free of charge."
Winfree wrote the note on July 17. Reached by telephone Friday morning, she said she still hadn't received any answers from the city. She's not sure what will happen if the ordinance goes into effect as it stands.
Zac Trahan, program director for Texas Campaign for Environment, had been pushing for an anti-disposable bag ordnance for awhile and says earlier drafts of Dallas' law did include exemptions for SNAP and WIC shoppers. He has no idea how or why that exemption got cut out of the final draft. "A lot of people suggested to the City Council that there be exemptions for SNAP," he says.
But from a practical standpoint, the SNAP exemption may be irrelevant. Trahan points out that the city ordinance also mentions plans to give away free reusable bags.
"I think that's more important than exempting people for SNAP, because then people are still using single-use disposable bags," he says. "It's really a better solution to distribute the [reusable] bags to people who need them in the long run."
Councilman Dwaine Caraway, who spearheaded the ordinance, said he hadn't heard anything about the state's SNAP concerns. But he promises that as part of implementing the ordinance, the city will include a plan to distribute free reusable bags to all people who can't afford their own.
"I think that if we are giving bags to everyone, then there are no exemptions necessary," he says.
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Grocers, retailers and bag producers have been aggressively fighting for their bags and have warmed of terrible consequences for cities that pass laws limiting their usage. Kroger, for example, has predicted that Dallasites may start Dumpster-diving for used trash bags to avoid the five cent fee.
And the Texas Retailers Association is arguing that local bag fees and bans violate the Texas Health and Safety Code. Attorney General Greg Abbott is scheduled to issue an opinion on that argument in September.
It was the president of the Texas Retailers Association who alerted the state to Dallas' possible WIC/SNAP screw-up, according to Joe Williams, the trade group's vice president.
Not all pro-trashbag people agree that shoppers on WIC and SNAP assistance should be exempt from paying five cents should they forget their reusable bags at home. A website called Fight the Plastic Bag Ban angrily writes that a low-income exemption "indirectly redistributes wealth from one class of shoppers to another, thereby creating a new benefit for WIC and SNAP participants." When you put it that way, exempting poor people from paying a small fee almost sounds like commie-bagism.