A different kind of nutrition debate in Washington

House Republicans dove headlong into another controversial nutrition issue this week: Limiting what you can buy with SNAP benefits. Why nutrition incentives are something to watch.

A window sign features the SNAP logo, which is a green grocery bag filled with eggs, produce, bread and milk. It says Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program spelled out next to the logo.s

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A different kind of nutrition debate in Washington

Now that the oh-so-dramatic debt limit fight is behind us, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are shifting attention to the farm bill.

This week the House Agriculture Committee held its first hearing on the bill’s nutrition programs – nutrition spending is now more than 80 percent of the farm bill – to a packed house

House Dems aren’t playing: House Democrats showed up to the nearly 5-hour hearing with a unified warning for Republicans: If you attempt to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, even an inch, good luck with the farm bill because we’re out. (To be clear: The farm bill will need bipartisan support if it has any chance of getting done.) 

“The Freedom Caucus has all kinds of red lines that they are drawing that we all have to supposedly adhere to,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), referring to a conservative subset of the Republican conference. “Well I have a redline, too: If you cut SNAP, if you make more people in this country hungry, then we are against this farm bill. We will fight against this farm bill, plain and simple.”

Little ado about work requirements: I’d expected a fair amount of discussion about SNAP work requirements since they played such a central role in the debt limit compromise, despite a lingering lack of clarity about what the deal actually did. Overall, though, there was surprisingly little talk of work requirements, particularly from House Republicans, who instead focused more on nutrition concerns, like whether we should consider limiting what foods you can purchase with SNAP.

“We micromanage everything that’s done in school cafeterias … yet we do nothing with regard to what we allow people to buy with their SNAP benefits,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.). Scott said it bothered him that SNAP recipients can’t buy rotisserie chickens (hot prepared foods have long been barred), but he also questioned whether snack foods should be allowed.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t be able to buy a pack of crackers, but if we’re honest some of the stuff that’s being bought with SNAP benefits is leading to the health challenges you’re talking about,” he said.

Is nutrition the new hot-button issue? Two of the hearing witnesses argued there should be much more focus on improving nutrition through SNAP. Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called on Congress to make improving diet quality a core objective of SNAP and drop sugary drinks from the program, among other things. Patrick Stover, director of the Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture, at Texas A&M University, meanwhile, argued that the entire food system should be re-imagined with Americans’ health as the goal.

“If you look at the food system we have today, it was engineered to address the endpoint of hunger and food security,” said Stover. “Now, because of the unintended consequences of rising healthcare costs due to the diets that we consume, there is a movement to shift to include health with hunger.”

“If we are going to change the goal to include health, we need to rethink the entire agriculture value chain, look at our incentives, look at our policies, look at our programs, look at innovations to achieve that goal,” Stover added.

To be clear, these are considered radical ideas in Washington, and there is zero chance of revamping farm policy whole hog to focus on better nutrition outcomes (at least not right now), but I noticed a few Republicans, in particular, who seemed really into this concept. During the hearing, I tweeted my observation that GOP lawmakers were leaning in on nutrition. The House Republican majority for the committee shared my tweet and added this message: “Diet-related disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. It doesn’t have to be this way. Encouraging healthier eating habits can lead to better health outcomes, fewer medical expenses, and longer lives.”

What to make of all this: As I’ve noted before, the idea that Congress would set limits on what foods SNAP participants can buy with their benefits is not currently politically feasible. Anti-hunger groups fiercely oppose the idea as do broad swaths of the food industry, a powerful combo in this town. There also isn’t support for the idea among the so-called “four corners” – the top leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees. Still, this idea appears to have real and growing traction with some Republicans. (It’s particularly interesting, too, because we once heard these SNAP arguments coming more from public health folks on the left, but whatever realignment is happening here is probably a topic for another day!)  

While it’s hard to see how restrictions would happen anytime soon, I do think we’re going to hear more about this as the farm bill process continues. One wonky thing to watch: A separate push from Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) to test the concept of SNAP restrictions in an agriculture spending bill. (Harris is chair of the House subcommittee that oversees USDA and FDA spending bills.) This idea could very well have a chance, depending on how Washington’s spending bill dynamics and negotiations shake out. The measure would have to overcome an onslaught of lobbying against it. 

Nutrition incentives as safe harbor: All of this chatter about restrictions (however politically unlikely) also raises the profile of a far less controversial, bipartisan policy: Nutrition incentives for SNAP participants. During the hearing this week, a handful of Democrats touted the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program – known as GusNIP – as a way to improve nutrition without being punitive or paternalistic toward low-income Americans struggling to afford groceries. 

“You try having a healthy diet on an average of about $6 per person, per day, it’s awfully hard,” said McGovern during the hearing. “The benefit is inadequate and maybe we ought to be talking about expanding GusNIP as a way to deal with that.”

GusNIP offers extra benefits for fruit and vegetable purchases for SNAP beneficiaries. A new three-year evaluation of GusNIP, released this week, found that the program modestly improved fruit and vegetable consumption, while improving food security and participants’ perception of their own health. The report also found substantial local economic benefits.

Currently, though, GusNIP is a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of SNAP. Last year, the program had just over $41 million in redeemed incentives – 10 times what the program started with just a few years ago, but teeny tiny compared to the more than $113 billion in SNAP benefits issued to more than 41 million people in 2022.

Stabenow loves GusNIP, but money is tight: Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) – a key leader writing the upcoming farm bill – spoke at a large gathering of folks working in the nutrition incentive space this week. She cheered on GusNIP, which she championed in past farm bills, but also seemed to temper expectations about expansion in the upcoming farm bill due to funding constraints. “We are in a very tight situation right now,” Stabenow said during remarks at the Nutrition Incentive Hub meeting in Arlington, Va.

Supporters of expanding nutrition incentives met with dozens of lawmakers while they were in town this week. Stabenow implored attendees to take a message to Capitol Hill: “We need to protect SNAP and we need to do more on GusNIP. This is not either or. This is not either or. This is both.” 

The Michigan Democrat – long an ardent supporter for fruit and vegetable interests in the farm bill – seemed to suggest that a big expansion of GusNIP might not be in the cards this time around, even if she’d love to do that. (Sidenote: This is Stabenow’s final farm bill before retiring. Even her official portrait as chair is chock full of fruits and vegetables, a departure from the other portraits that line the ornate Senate Agriculture Committee room).

“We want to increase the dollars, but I’m telling you as someone who cares deeply about this, that a win for us, this time, may look like preserving what we have so we can move forward,” Stabenow said. “We’re just going to work our hearts out … to do the very best we can.”

How big is the pie? There’s a bit more uncertainty now about how much money is available to do anything on nutrition in the farm bill after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the debt limit compromise on SNAP would slightly increase costs over a decade.


What I’m reading

Debt bill dampens chance Puerto Rico will get expanded food aid (Bloomberg Law). “Residents in all 50 states, D.C., Guam, and the Virgin Islands can apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan, the largest source of US food aid. But Puerto Rico operates on a block grant system that more than three decades ago was deemed a less expensive option to cover the island’s 3 million-plus residents. The territory’s Nutrition Assistance Program shells out benefits that average 41% less than what SNAP would provide,” writes Maeve Sheehey. There’s a major push to move Puerto Rico onto SNAP this farm bill cycle, but advocates are concerned that “belt-cinching in the GOP-controlled House will slow the momentum they’ve gathered this year.”

Des Moines’ largest food pantry operator sees spike in need as SNAP curtailed (DTN). “Des Moines is seeing a trend that is growing across the country as food banks and pantries are seeing spikes in demand for aid right now even as the country’s unemployment rate remains at 3.7%, low by historical standards,” reports Chris Clayton. “During the pandemic, [the Des Moines Area Religious Council] actually had less demand because federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients saw their benefits moved to top support levels. Fewer people needed to supplement their needs. Then a snapback in demand hit. Essentially, federal support that was increased during the pandemic for SNAP came to an abrupt end.”

I lost 40 pounds on Ozempic. But I’m left with even more questions. (Washington Post). In this personal and in-depth opinion piece, Ruth Marcus recounts her experience losing weight with the help of Ozempic and grapples with broader food questions: “If America has a Puritan strain, which demands that we lose weight the old-fashioned, diet-and-exercise way, there is also something quintessentially American about the alluring prospect of the quick fix, the magic pill. In the realm of supersized sodas and sedentary lifestyles, what the experts call our obesogenic environment, does the availability of obesity medications offer too much license to ignore underlying causes?”

The Daily Harvest mystery—a cause at last? (Food Politics). Marion Nestle writes about a new study hypothesizing that the Daily Harvest poisonings, which sent nearly 400 people to the hospital, may be traced to baikiain, an analog of an amino acid, that some people react very poorly to: “The hypothesis here is that some people are more susceptible to the toxic effects of baikiain than others. The French Lentil + Leek Crumbles were sent to 26,000 customers, of which 400 or so got sick, more than 100 of them badly enough to have to be hospitalized; some required surgery. The lesson here is that food ingredients need better testing.”


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