The SNAP battle picks up

A new bill to stiffen work requirements for SNAP participants gets tons of press. The White House plans a food conference event seeking additional outside commitments. More states inch toward universal free school meals. And, a response to FDA regarding ‘misinformation.’


A red sign on a retailers glass door says: IN. We Accept EBT Food Stamp Benefits

Kokomo - Circa September 2019: SNAP and EBT Accepted here sign VII

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! This newsletter is coming to you later than usual because I spent the morning at an elementary school learning about food and nutrition education – more on this next week! 

I’m actually supposed to be in San Francisco right now for Future Food-Tech, but alas, my sweet toddler got sick, so I had to cancel my trip. As it goes sometimes! Hope to make it next year.

Get your Food Fix twice a week: If you’re not a paid subscriber, you missed Tuesday’s coverage of how the Silicon Valley Bank failure rattled the food startup world, plus new details on FDA’s plan to reorg the foods program. To get Food Fix two times a week, take a look at subscription options.

An editorial note: I updated last Friday’s post on FDA asking (not telling) infant formula makers to disclose contamination to include the agency’s determination that it doesn’t have the authority to require this disclosure. While I’m always happy to clarify and add context to my reporting, I am disappointed that the FDA commissioner used the loaded term “misinformation” to push back against this newsletter on social media. My response to that below.

As I say every week, I really do welcome your feedback! Reply to this email or shoot me a note: helena@foodfix.co.  

Alright, let’s get to it –

Helena

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Today, in Food Fix: 

– A new bill to stiffen work requirements for SNAP participants gets tons of press

– White House plans a food conference event seeking additional outside commitments

– More states inch toward universal free school meals

– A response to FDA on “misinformation”

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The SNAP battle picks up

More than two dozen House Republicans, led by Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota lawmaker who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a bill this week to impose stricter work requirements on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants – a move that has made quite the splash in the press.

Coverage roundup: For a bill intro, this got a ton of play, including stories from Politico, USA Today, Fox News, CBS, Yahoo Finance, National Review, The Daily Mail and Vanity Fair, among others. 

This is what Washington insiders call a “marker bill,” AKA a measure that a lawmaker wants included in a bigger piece of legislation – here, the farm bill, which is up for reauthorization this year (though Congress is already behind in the process). 

“Work is the best pathway out of poverty,” said Rep. Johnson, in a statement. “With more than 11 million open jobs, there are plenty of opportunities for SNAP recipients to escape poverty and build a better life.”

What does the bill actually propose to do? Currently, able-bodied adults (18+) without dependents who are younger than 49, a category known as ABAWDs, are required to work or be enrolled in job training or some similar program for at least 20 hours a week, or they can only access SNAP benefits for 90 days every three years (otherwise known as the “time limit”). This requirement, however, has been waived by many states and was waived nationally during the COVID-19 public health emergency. The proposed bill aims to “close the loophole” allowing so many state waivers, per Johnson’s office. 

Republicans have long sought to make it harder for states to waive ABAWD work requirements – though previous attempts have failed in the farm bill –- but this legislation seeks to go even further. The legislation would also raise the age limit of an ABAWD from 49 to 65, the age individuals become eligible for Medicare. 

Politically dead on arrival: As I’ve written before – and as I explained recently on the Slate news podcast – we’re going to hear a lot of noise about this battle over SNAP work requirements over the next several months. The fact remains, however, that there isn’t a political path forward for anything close to what House Republicans are calling for here. 

Political math is political math. This type of policy can’t get through the Senate, killing its chances of being included in a farm bill. The same math presents a roadblock for House Republicans seeking to insert SNAP work requirements into the debt ceiling fight. So, while this will be a public debate with lots of mud slinging and political messaging, it’s just not going to go anywhere. 

A recent marker bill from House Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Alma Adams (N.C.) aims to eliminate the ABAWD work requirements, or time limit, altogether. This, too, is not politically feasible due to Republican control of the House.

“Research finds that relinquishing access to SNAP benefits only forces people into hunger, not job security,” Rep. Lee said in a statement.

Untouchable programs: One reason SNAP has been inserted into the debt-ceiling fight is that both sides of the aisle have agreed to keep Medicare and Social Security – the budget biggies – off the table. That just doesn’t leave many entitlement programs to seek cuts from, and SNAP and Medicaid are the easier targets, politically. 

What’s next? The farm bill process is slowly rolling ahead, but before any of those negotiations really get going, we’re probably going to see fighting over all of this ramp up with regard to raising the debt ceiling. 

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White House plans a food conference event seeking more outside commitments

This week the White House announced plans to hold a live-streamed event on March 24 to “seek additional external commitments” as a follow up to the administration’s earlier conference on hunger, nutrition and health.

“​​The livestream will be available to everyone that is interested in joining,” the White House said in an email update, promising forthcoming details.

The planned event comes about six months after the White House conference, held at the end of September. Read up on that event and the administration’s strategy, but the big takeaway was that President Joe Biden set a high-level goal of ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030.

This week the White House also touted some items in the president’s budget as evidence that the administration remains focused on the anti-hunger and nutrition goals of the conference. The administration, for example, pointed to the inclusion of $6.3 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); a call to remove barriers to SNAP access in the farm bill; and $478 million for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) to “bolster its nutrition work and improve food labeling to empower consumers to make good food choices when grocery shopping.” 

Budget context: An important bit of context for that CFSAN number: In a recent letter, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf indicated that nutrition spending at the agency totals around $29 million, or roughly 3 percent of the agency’s foods budget. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The vast majority of food-related resources at FDA are dedicated to food safety, such as trying to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks.

“However, nutrition related chronic diseases are major contributors to illnesses and deaths in this country,” Califf wrote. 

Jerold Mande, CEO of Nourish Science, was unimpressed with the administration’s budget and the call for external commitments. “It’s disappointing with a $1.7 trillion budget that they are relying on donations to implement the National Strategy,” Mande said in an email. “The budget fails to put us on course to end hunger or significantly increase healthy eating by 2030. It will not result in the historic gains fighting hunger we made after the first [White House conference]. There is still time to put someone in charge so we can finally make headway on nutrition.”

Other supporters of the conference are encouraged by White House staff continuing to focus on post-conference follow up, such as regular calls with stakeholders. Still, the political environment is tough for many of the things on the administration’s conference wish-list.

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More states inch toward universal free school meals

Speaking of the White House conference, one of the big goals laid out by the Biden administration was to move the country toward universal free school meals by first working with Congress to expand access to “healthy, free school meals” for 9 million more children by 2032.

As I’ve written, there’s currently no political (or budgetary) path for Congress to resume the universal free school meals policy it instituted nationally for the first few years of the pandemic, but states are moving full steam ahead on adopting universal free school meals on their own. Most recently, the Minnesota legislature passed a bill giving all students access to free meals, with some Republican support, per CBS

New Mexico also passed a bill with bipartisan support – passing the state House unanimously –  sending the measure to the governor to sign

Minnesota and New Mexico join a growing list of states that have adopted universal free meals, including California, Colorado and Maine. A handful of others have temporary universal meal programs in place.

A signal to Congress? As more states adopt universal meals, it gets somewhat easier for Congress to consider permanently instituting universal free meals nationwide – though we’re probably quite a long way from that being politically feasible.

“States across the country are stepping up to ensure that every kid is fed and ready to learn, regardless of their background – a clear indication that our children, their well-being, and sense of belonging are a top priority,” said Robert Harvey, president of FoodCorps. “We hope this bipartisan support is a signal to Congress to pass federal school meals for all to support families across the U.S.”

Charting the states: By the way, Food Research & Action Center created a helpful spreadsheet on state actions, though bills are advancing so quickly it’s hard to keep up. (This chart was last updated mid-February, so it’s missing a few recent developments.)

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A response to FDA on “misinformation”

As I mentioned up top: I updated last week’s post on FDA asking (not telling) infant formula makers to disclose contamination to clarify that the agency has determined it doesn’t have the authority to require this disclosure. 

It’s perfectly normal for an agency to seek a clarification on something, as FDA did here, and I was happy to update the post – no problem. What I did take issue with, however, is FDA Commissioner Robert Califf characterizing the coverage as “misinformation” on Twitter.

Let’s unpack the facts: Last week, FDA sent a letter to infant formula manufacturers, and others in the industry, asking them to voluntarily notify the agency when products test positive for either Salmonella or Cronobacter sakazakii, the pathogen that sparked the infant formula crisis, even if the product was never shipped out. This news was the lead item in last Friday’s Food Fix.

An uncomfortable quote: Califf seemed to take particular issue with a pointed quote from Steven Abrams, one of the country’s foremost experts on infant formula and a neonatologist in the department of pediatrics at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. 

“Why in God’s name are they asking for voluntary notification as opposed to mandatory notification?” Abrams said. “The answer, I believe, is they don’t have the legal authority, they’d have to go through the rulemaking process. But there’s an organization in Washington that doesn’t have to go through a rulemaking process called Congress.”

Abrams noted in this quote that he didn’t think FDA had the authority, but then he also later questioned why the agency hadn’t already pursued rulemaking. (It was the Abrams quote above that Califf replied to on Twitter.)

FDA argued that Food Fix should have been clearer that FDA has determined it doesn’t have the authority to pursue rulemaking to mandate such reporting. I agreed with their assessment, so I updated the post on Saturday to clarify that point with the agency’s statement.

For his part, after having a conversation with FDA, Abrams also took to Twitter to clarify his response: 

“The FDA has informed me that they do not have legal authority to mandate this notification,” he wrote. “I amend my statement to make it clear [that] Congress should give them that authority as soon as possible.”

Now, I want to be clear that clarifications and corrections are two very different things. There was room for greater context, which FDA provided and I added. But there was no correction.

FDA also took issue with the headline of the newsletter: “FDA asks (not tells) formula makers to disclose contamination.” I stand by the headline, which accurately conveys the voluntary nature of this request.

The bigger picture: Abrams and others who have taken issue with the FDA’s letter are focused less on the agency’s technical authority and more on a broader concern over the voluntary nature of this safety ask. 

Frankly, it’s also shocking for many to see FDA politely reminding an industry it regulates to follow federal safety rules a year after the start of a major crisis. Infants are a particularly vulnerable population – parents and caregivers expect and assume infant formula products are tightly regulated. 

Why now? As I reported in Tuesday’s newsletter, FDA asked Congress last week for this test reporting authority in a budget document. This is notable, but it raises another critical question: Why didn’t the agency formally make this request earlier? It wasn’t in the agency’s budget request last year. It’s been more than a year since the massive Abbott Nutrition infant formula recall, and we’ve seen a handful of smaller recalls over Cronobacter concerns in recent months. And infant formula shortages and disruptions continue in many parts of the country. 

I asked FDA about the timing of this request and a spokesperson said the agency’s “thinking on this need evolved following our investigation at Sturgis and other facilities,” referring to the Abbott plant in Sturgis, Mich., at the center of last year’s historic recall.

None of this is misinformation: As a longtime journalist, I can tell you it’s common for reporters and federal agencies to exchange barbs behind the scenes. But this was something else. It’s disappointing to see Commissioner Califf use this term to push back against a journalist (and a fellow physician).

Misinformation implies that something is intentionally misleading. It’s snake-oil salesmen who tell people bleach can cure COVID, for example. My reporting was not misinformation. I stand by it and believe my track record speaks for itself. 

I want to be clear: I welcome feedback from any reader of this newsletter. (Truly! Get in touch!) If something needs to be clarified, I’m happy to clarify it. If something I report turns out to be wrong, I’ll run a correction. But any suggestion that last week’s newsletter was somehow designed to mislead people is false.

I won’t shy away from writing tough stories, but I always put fairness first. And public officials ought to think carefully about the words they use and the weight those words carry.

If you have any questions about this or anything else you see reported in Food Fix, please drop me a line any time: helena@foodfix.co

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What I’m reading

Lunchables may soon be available in a school cafeteria near you (NBC News). “Starting this year, school administrators will be able to buy two different Lunchables offerings for the 2023–2024 school year: Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker and Extra Cheesy Pizza, Kraft Heinz spokesperson Jenna Thornton told NBC News…Thornton said the two Lunchables now meet National School Lunch Program guidelines and “have a specialized recipe that incorporates more protein and whole grains…reduced saturated fat and sodium, and an increased serving size.”

Excessive salt will kill millions without action, WHO report warns (Washington Post). I missed this report last week: “Seven million people could die of diseases linked to excessive salt consumption before the decade’s end unless governments immediately pass tighter restrictions on salt, a report by the World Health Organization warned Thursday,” per Leo Sands. “Its authors are calling on governments to implement stricter sodium targets for food, mark salt content more clearly on packaging and boost public awareness of the health dangers posed by eating a lot of salty food.”

Left over: How corporations and politicians are milking the American school lunch (WNC Studios). A six-part investigative podcast on the federal school meals programs by journalist Jessica Terrell launched this week. I just started listening, and I’d love to know what you think about this series.

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