How the child tax credit is food policy, too

The sweeping, bipartisan deal on taxes could be the biggest thing Washington does to chip away at childhood hunger.

A small toy shopping cart is filled with toy foods, including baguettes and produce. There's a wooden crate of oranges sitting next to it. The scene is set in a grocery store aisle.

Happy Friday and welcome to Food Fix! If you’re a newbie here: I’m Helena Bottemiller Evich and I’ve been covering food policy in Washington for nearly 15 years, most recently at Politico where I was a senior reporter. I launched Food Fix in 2022 to be the go-to read on all things food policy. I’m glad you’re here!

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The child tax credit as food policy

My husband often jokes that I can find the food angle in any story — and he’s not wrong! So hear me out: The biggest story in food policy this week was the new bipartisan deal to expand the child tax credit.

The sweeping $78 billion tax deal struck by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith (R-Mo.) this week might not seem like food policy at first blush. But as we learned during the pandemic,  expanding the child tax credit — or CTC, in Washington parlance — significantly reduces the number of households with children that struggle to provide food for everyone under their roof.

More money, more food: Expanded CTC payments throughout 2021 helped drive a whopping 46 percent reduction in child poverty in the U.S., per Census Bureau data. They also made millions of households more food secure, as researchers repeatedly found that food was the top thing the payments were used for. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the initial payments to millions of households led to a 25 percent decline in food insufficiency among low-income households with children. (Food insufficiency here is defined as sometimes or often not having enough to eat.)

Those positive effects, the researchers found, were “concentrated among families with 2019 pre-tax incomes below $35,000, and the CTC strongly reduces food insufficiency among low-income Black, Latino, and White families alike.” 

Despite these gains and the program’s popularity, Congress let the expanded CTC payments expire at the beginning of 2022. Predictably, child poverty shot right back up, as did the number of families with hungry kids.

The new CTC deal: Under the compromise tax package unveiled this week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, estimates some 16 million children would benefit from the expansion, out of the 19 million whose families are currently ineligible for the full CTC. An estimated 400,000 children and their families would be lifted above the poverty line in the first year, per the center.

The deal is not as generous or as broad as the previous, albeit brief, CTC expansion. It expands benefits for low-income households — mostly those that make between $20,000 and $40,000, but less so below that (the 2021 expansion was fully refundable, so everyone below a certain income limit qualified for the full payments regardless of their tax liability). It also wouldn’t pay out in monthly payments like the 2021 expansion did. (BTW, Vox has a good explainer if you want to dive into the details.) Still, anti-poverty and anti-hunger advocates are thrilled that there is a deal to broaden the CTC at all. 

What’s next: The broader tax deal’s fate is far from clear, but it does seem to have at least a shot of becoming law. The package also comes with billions in tax breaks for businesses, which certainly helps politically, given that the GOP-controlled House hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic about expanding the CTC.

“It’s — I don’t want to say a legislative miracle, but it almost is,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a key backer of the child tax credit, told the New York Times. “Six months ago, there was no chance of the child tax credit.” 

I’ve seen reports that there may be less of a chance of this happening this year because President Joe Biden is up for re-election, and Republicans will be loath to give him a bipartisan win like this. I don’t know if that’s the case — the deal can also be spun as a win for Republicans seeking tax cuts — but an expanded CTC would certainly be a popular policy to come out of Washington at a time when this town seems incapable of doing just about anything.

Anti-abortion groups on board: One thing I’ll bet some conservatives took note of: Last week, a handful of lesser-known anti-abortion groups sent a letter to congressional leadership to back a beefed-up CTC. Progressives have long criticized these groups for being uninterested in policies that support American children after they’re born, but a pro-CTC position is at least consistent with the consequences of these groups’ desire to ban or strictly limit abortion.  

“Many mothers face significant health and financial challenges throughout pregnancy and into the early years of raising a child,” the groups wrote. “We can, and should, do more as a nation to provide for their needs.”

WSJ unimpressed: The Wall Street Journal editorial board, for its part, came out swinging against the deal on Thursday, arguing that it would discourage work. Earlier this week, the Washington Post editorial board urged swift passage of the deal

The bigger picture: It strikes me that this deal to expand the CTC is perhaps the only even somewhat viable policy in Congress that could move the needle on food insecurity for households with children in the short term. Lawmakers have essentially given up trying to reauthorize and update child nutrition programs (this used to be an every-five-years thing that’s imploded under political dysfunction). The farm bill isn’t happening anytime soon, and even if it were, there’s neither the money nor the political will to expand nutrition assistance. 

At the same time, the WIC program, which targets nutrition aid to mothers and young children, is facing a benefits cliff later this year, and it’s unclear if Congress will come up with the $1 billion the Biden administration says is needed to fix it. Yesterday, lawmakers pushed the latest shutdown threat to March by passing yet another short-term spending bill, but anti-hunger advocates were dismayed that the extra WIC funding wasn’t included.


What I’m reading

In the Ozempic age, has ‘craveable’ lost its selling power? (New York Times). This piece by Kim Severson dives into the changing landscape for food marketers. At one point, it was mainstream to lean into food being irresistible, but times are changing and Ozempic is being more widely adopted. “Some who work in or study the nation’s $1 trillion food industry describe the moment as not much more than a speed bump. Food companies are nimble at surfing the cultural waves and finding new ways to keep customers reaching for another helping,” Severson writes. “Others say it’s a watershed moment in how Americans eat, and will change how companies sell food. 

Aleph Farms’ cultivated beef process receives blessing from Israeli government (TechCrunch). “Aleph Farms received regulatory approval in the form of a ‘No Questions’ letter from Israel’s Ministry of Health for its cultivated beef manufacturing process,” reports Christine Hall. “Aleph, an Israel-based cellular agriculture company, says it is the first company to receive this kind of approval for cultivated beef. This process uses animal cells, not a slaughtered animal, often fed and grown in a bioreactor. It’s also a timely and expensive process to manufacture enough to form a whole cut of meat.”

Advocacy groups are petitioning for the end of SNAP interview requirements (Associated Press). “Student and legal advocacy groups are petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lift the interview requirement for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applicants to receive food aid,” reports Cora Lewis.”The groups argue the interview requirement is burdensome and prevents those who qualify for food aid from receiving it. The National Student Legal Defense Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and the California Student Aid Commission are among the organizations calling for its removal. A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture said the agency is reviewing the proposal.”

FDA should finalize plans to implement its rule to help trace source of outbreaks (Government Accountability Office). “The Food and Drug Administration has a new rule requiring detailed records on certain foods as they move through the supply chain, which can help trace the sources of outbreaks,” GAO noted in a new report. “FDA has taken some steps—such as issuing guidance—to help implement the rule. We recommended that FDA finalize its plans for implementing the rule to help industry and regulators prepare for compliance by January 20, 2026.” Congress first asked for a food traceability rule in the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011. 

HHS Food Is Medicine Summit (HHS). Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra recently posted an invitation to virtually attend the first-ever HHS Food Is Medicine Summit on Jan. 31. “This will be a full-day event for policymakers, advocates, researchers, and a wide variety of stakeholders with equities in the Food is Medicine space to engage in a substantive conversation about why food is medicine is important, what actions are being taken to promote this concept, and what stakeholders can do to bolster this work.”

Where gummi bears come from (Bloomberg). This is a fun read from Deena Shanker on a new Haribo gummy bear factory in Wisconsin: “The Pleasant Prairie plant opened in early 2023 and now pumps out 60 million Goldbears every day; the company plans to eventually launch Twin Snakes manufacturing lines as well. The facility—which is Haribo’s first in North America—is based on its 15 other global factories. … A series of machines assisted by humans make tray after tray of perfectly shaped gummi bears in the flavored colors of raspberry red, lemon yellow, orange orange, pineapple white and strawberry green. (Yes, you read that last one right.)”


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