Valentines Gifts -- Courtesy Of Food Stamps

Valentines Gifts -- Courtesy Of Food Stamps

CREATED Feb 13, 2013

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Valentines is a day for showing your love and spending your money.

For some, it's roses. For those with more expensive tastes, it's diamonds.

For others, it just might be a lovely Kit Kat arrangement -- at taxpayer expense.

"This is appalling that this is food-stamp eligible," exclaimed taxpayer watchdog Ben Cunningham.

But, along what was called Lover's Lane in the East Nashville Kroger, we spotted tables full of candy arrangements for almost every taste -- from Hershey's to Reese's to Kit Kats -- all marked as "food stamp eligible."

We bought one arrangement that had six candy bars and a handful of Reese's Cups -- in some brightly colored wrapping paper and a nice vase -- for $19.99.

"It's really, really disheartening that our government is run in a way that this is considered food," said Cunningham, who heads the Tennessee Tax Revolt.

In fact, under federal food stamp rules, gift baskets are covered if the value of the food items -- which includes candy -- is at least 50 percent of the purchase price.

But we bought the same candies that came in our $20 gift arrangement -- for just $7.

"We did find that we had some errors in those stores," said Kroger spokesperson Melissa Eads.

She said that employees in a couple of stores did make some mistakes with those candy arrangements -- mistakes that were quickly corrected after NewsChannel 5 Investigates contacted the grocery store chain.

"In this case, we had marked some items that did not meet that criteria as being EBT eligible when they were not," she acknowledged.

"Because they did not have enough candy?" we asked.

"They did not have enough candy in them," she agreed.

Eads added that, "as a precautionary measure, we have reminded all of our stores of the guidelines."

Still, this situation raises the question: why should food stamps be used for junk food, instead of healthy food?

We showed the candy arrangement to Jennifer Bailey of Community Food Advocates, a group that tries to help struggling families to put food on the table.

"I think my initial reaction is, you know, I find strawberries just as romantic for Valentine's Day as KitKat bars," she said with a smile.

But Bailey insisted that the real question isn't how food stamps recipients are spending your money.

"I would flip that question and ask why are retailers trying to peddle junk food to low-income populations -- it's really a challenge," she said.

Eads insisted that is not Kroger's focus.

"Certainly we know that everybody is looking to eat healthier, and so we feel like we are giving our customers those options," she said.

Still, it isn't just Valentines.

By some estimates, soft drinks alone cost the food stamp program some $4 billion a year.

But the food industry itself has lobbied against rules that would keep government money from being used for such junk food.

"If the government is going to hand it out, I think they ought to do it as wisely as they can," Cunningham said. "And, clearly, with the obesity problem that we've got now, we shouldn't be buying junk food."

Jennifer Bailey doesn't think the government ought to be dictating what food stamp recipients can buy for their families.

Still, she doesn't like the message that such products send to the public.

"It's real hard to eat on a food stamp budget," she said. "You are just trying to cover your basic, basic needs. And this does not help."

And Bailey said she would love it if retailers just stopped pushing such products on people who are struggling to make ends meet.

"That's a much larger cultural change that we think needs to happen," she added.

Our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that there are some strange food stamp rules.

You can buy candy, but you can't buy vitamins.

You can buy all sorts of cakes from the bakery, but you can't buy hot foods from the deli.

Click here to read more on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food stamp rules.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com