When both sides blame the ref

Why both the left and right are questioning an obscure congressional referee. What’s next in the SNAP debate on Capitol Hill. Plus, venture funding way down for food and ag.

A photograph of the U.S. Capitol building.s

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! For anyone new here: I’m a reporter who’s covered food policy in Washington for more than a decade. Learn more about me and why I launched this newsletter.

If you haven’t yet made the leap to paid subscriber, on Tuesday you missed the most detailed rundown anywhere of what this debt limit deal means for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Subscribe now to fix that and get two editions of Food Fix in your inbox each week. 

More conversation: This week, I joined the Briefing with Steve Scully to discuss SNAP in the debt limit. Give it a listen

Last night, NPR’s Ximena Bustillo and I hosted a Twitter Spaces discussion to dive into SNAP in the deal. We took several questions from listeners about the farm bill and more. Check out the replay

As always, I welcome feedback, links and story ideas. Reply to this newsletter to land in my inbox or drop me a note: helena@foodfix.co.

Alright, let’s get to it –



Today, in Food Fix: 

– Why the left and right are questioning a key congressional referee

– What’s next in the SNAP debate on Capitol Hill

– Venture funding way down for food and ag 


When both sides blame the ref

Washington has now avoided default, but along the way, it’s also ripped open quite a debate about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), still known to some as food stamps.

For those who haven’t been following every twist and turn of this saga: The debt limit deal struck between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last weekend included an expansion of work requirements – and a shrinking of work requirements.

How can a deal both expand and shrink work requirements? Well, it’s a little complicated, but here are the basics: The deal expands the age range of able-bodied adults without dependents (known as ABAWDs) who need to show they are working about 20 hours per week or they can only receive three months of SNAP benefits every three years (AKA the time limit), from ages 18-49 to 18-54. But the deal also carves out new exemptions for veterans, individuals who are homeless and youth aging out of foster care (up to age 24) – exemptions aimed at shrinking who is subject to these requirements. 

The initial reports on the compromise enraged progressives and Democrats who had argued that SNAP was something of a redline. House Republicans, meanwhile, were initially thrilled. They were able to push changes to SNAP that were virtually politically impossible outside of such a high-stakes negotiation. (As I noted earlier this week, the GOP wasn’t even able to impose stricter work requirements back when the party controlled the House, Senate and White House during the 2018 farm bill.) 

The referee: But on Tuesday night, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – the nonpartisan referee that estimates how much legislation will cost or save taxpayers – issued its score, or forward-looking protection. CBO found that the changes to SNAP would actually slightly expand access to SNAP (78,000 more adults in an average month) and cost $2.1 billion more over the next decade. (This is a small change, in the scheme of things, as SNAP currently serves more than 42 million people and is projected to cost $1.2 trillion over the next decade.)

As reported in Politico by Meredith Lee Hill, who’s been all over this, the CBO score sent Republican leadership into damage control mode to tamp down a rebellion on the far right: “While House Republican leaders and McCarthy allies sought to immediately tamp down the furor, reaching out to members late into the night to argue the CBO projections were wrong, their arguments failed to quell some far-right lawmakers’ concerns. One of the debt deal’s most visible critics, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), blasted the bill’s ‘watered down work requirements that save $0’ on Twitter Wednesday morning. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) meanwhile issued a series of scathing tweets about how she ‘won’t be voting to expand government welfare today.’”

On Wednesday, McCarthy’s office sent reporters a memo from the House Agriculture Committee arguing CBO got it wrong on multiple fronts: “CBO is basing their score on weak information that doesn’t reflect how SNAP really works.”

As House Republican leaders decried the CBO score, the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) also noted that the data are uncertain. 

“There is a lot of focus on CBO’s estimate that the group newly protected may be somewhat larger than the group newly harmed. Some have even criticized the analysis, which @USCBO had to do w/ serious data limitations and under extreme time pressure,” Sharon Parrott, president of CBPP wrote in a Twitter thread that was flagged to reporters. “The most important takeaway from the @USCBO estimate is that under current law the SNAP work reporting requirement takes basic food assistance away from so many veterans, former foster youth, and ppl experiencing homelessness.” (Parrott later said in a statement to Food Fix she was not questioning CBO’s overall findings, but noting that the projections are challenging and uncertain.)

Key context: One thing that’s important to know is just about everyone who works on Capitol Hill develops a fraught relationship with CBO at some point. Their scores are really important, yet often mysterious, leaving lawmakers and staff frustrated. I’ve talked to some experts who think CBO is probably mostly right here. I’ve also talked to some experts who think CBO is so off base it’s basically embarrassing to the country. We do not know how exactly CBO came to this calculation and a lot of people are questioning the referee.

The political take: The SNAP compromise allowed House Republicans to claim work requirements as one of their biggest “wins” in the package, while also allowing the White House to argue that the overall impact would be negligible. We won’t know which side ends up being more “right” until this policy starts taking effect across the states, all of which will implement it differently. Even then, it will likely be hard to tell as the changes don’t appear to meaningfully move the needle in either direction in terms of access or enrollment.

(Sidenote: If you work at a state agency and have thoughts about implementation, please get in touch! helena@foodfix.co.)

The big score: At the end of the day, with legions of Democrats supporting the deal to avoid default, McCarthy didn’t need the right flank of his caucus to get this debt limit bill through the House. The 314-117 vote included 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats voting for the deal.

Senate green light: Last night, the Senate also approved the deal, 63-36, which pulled the U.S. back from the brink of defaulting. One “no” vote in particular stood out to me: Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s nutrition panel, slammed the SNAP compromise: “I did not agree to these SNAP restrictions, and I won’t give Republicans an opening to try and take food from more food insecure Americans in Farm Bill negotiations later this year,” Fetterman said in a statement. “That is why I voted no tonight.”


What’s next in the SNAP debate on Capitol Hill

Aside from the debate about what the debt limit compromise actually does – and what it means for the thousands of people who may lose, gain or now get to keep their benefits – there are a lot of questions swirling about what the deal means for the farm bill, which Congress wants to get done by Sept. 30, though no one is holding their breath.

About that farm bill: The farm bill is really a misbranded piece of legislation – it’s more than 80 percent nutrition, by cost (SNAP being the lion’s share of that) – while also being a crucial vehicle for updating farm policy, rural development and so much else. 

The tension over SNAP policy has subsumed the legislation in recent cycles – diffusing that tension has become key to getting the farm bill done in part due to the shrinking population of rural voters. 

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told reporters this week that she sees the work issue as a done deal going into the farm bill. The debt limit deal “takes the issue of SNAP work requirements off the table,” Stabenow told reporters Tuesday evening, per Agri-Pulse. “So, that’s just one less issue we’re going to have to negotiate.” 

Ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) had the same vibe this week, basically let’s move on already. Boozman has been vocal in raising concerns about how the Biden administration updated the Thrifty Food Plan, which underpins how SNAP benefits are calculated – and resulted in a historic permanent increase. That move increased SNAP costs by $250 billion over a decade, whereas the current debt-limit deal that’s getting so much attention is projected to raise costs by a meager $2.1 billion over a decade (pocket change in the scheme of things).

House Agriculture Chairman GlennGT” Thompson (R-Pa.) has hedged a bit more on where he sees things, certainly not ruling out further discussion on SNAP, but so far no one I’ve talked to expects the particulars of this agreement to reopen.

It’s hard to predict where this is all headed. As Ximena Bustillo told me last night in our Twitter Spaces chat, “vibes are a little bit everywhere” on Capitol Hill as lawmakers try to make sense of this deal.

The House Agriculture Committee is jumping right back into the discussion with a hearing focused on SNAP for Wednesday next week: “Innovation, Employment, Integrity, and Health: Opportunities for Modernization in Title IV”. (Title IV is the nutrition section of the sprawling farm bill legislation.)

Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who supports both stricter work requirements and restrictions on what foods SNAP recipients can buy with their benefits, plans to testify in that hearing, she told me this week when I called to ask about the debt limit deal. Rachidi, for her part, doesn’t see the debt limit compromise changing the trajectory of the farm bill debate much.

“My guess is that [some House Republicans] will continue down the path they had already started in terms of strengthening work requirements, which would be kind of using this as a stepping stone and then focusing on strengthening up the waiver criteria,” Rachidi told me.

‘Let’s get the rest’: Meanwhile, McCarthy’s comments this week caught some folks’ attention. When asked about the fact that more Democrats than Republicans ultimately voted for the House bill, the speaker seemed to suggest he saw the work requirements deal as just the beginning.  

“I think it’s wonderful that they voted for it,” McCarthy said, as he grew increasingly animated. “They are now on record so they can’t sit there and yell this isn’t good … let’s get the rest of the IRS agents, let’s get the rest of the work requirements, let’s cut more because we are in a big debt. This is fabulous, this is one of the best nights I’ve been here.” 


Venture funding way down for food and ag 

Venture funding for food and agriculture startups is down substantially as interest rates rise, according to new analysis from Food Dive based on PitchBook data

“In the first quarter of 2023, there were 1,030 transactions that raised roughly $1 billion, compared to 1,349 deals totaling $1.3 billion in the first three months of 2022,” reports Christopher Doering. “The fourth quarter of 2022 saw an especially profound drop, with 785 deals raising $800 million. At the same time in 2021, 2,316 deals raised $2.3 billion.”

“To be sure, companies are still raising money but the deals appear to be smaller,” Doering adds. “Prime Roots, which uses koji mycelium to make meat analogs, announced earlier this month it closed a $30 million Series B round to expand its deli meat-style product. And two weeks earlier, low-carb and better-for-you bread maker Hero Bread raised $15 million in a Series B round and announced a national retail launch. But other businesses are running into problems and being forced to shut down.”


What I’m reading

Arsenic limits in apple juice finalized by FDA 10 years later (Bloomberg Law). “Inorganic arsenic in apple juices shouldn’t exceed 10 parts per billion under guidance finalized by the FDA Thursday—nearly a decade after the agency first proposed the limit,” reports Celine Castronuovo. “The final guidance contains nonbinding recommendations for juice manufacturers. It is another step in the Food and Drug Administration’s ‘Closer to Zero’ action plan, which includes planned goals to help lower early childhood exposure to toxic heavy metals as much as possible.”

Why Chick-fil-A is drawing fire over a ‘culture of belonging’ (New York Times). “Chick-fil-A drew fierce criticism this week from conservatives calling out the fast-food chain for its diversity, equity and inclusion policy and questioning the hiring of an executive to be in charge of such efforts,” reports Jesus Jiménez. “The backlash has made Chick-fil-A one of the latest companies to draw public condemnation over ‘culture war’ flash points like L.G.B.T.Q. rights or seeking fair treatment for racial or ethnic groups that have been historically underrepresented. Several companies and brands have also been at the center of such criticism in recent months, including Bud Light, Target and the Los Angeles Dodgers.”

Young Celiac disease activist invited to the White House (ABC News). David Muir did an update segment on Jax Bari, 10, who has spoken out about the need for more research and awareness for the millions of Americans who suffer from Celiac disease. The segment features Bari’s policy work in the area, including a recent meeting at the White House, urging government officials to mandate gluten allergen labeling on food packages.


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