Why Congress is fighting about SNAP (again)

Where we’re at with the farm bill – and why the key to getting that done always comes down to nutrition – not farm – policy.

The USDA's SNAP logo against a yellow backdrop. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! I’m so pregnant that this week a WMATA bus driver stopped to give me a little honk and a double thumbs up. I appreciate the good vibes, sir! 

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Alright, let’s get to it –



Why Congress is fighting about SNAP (again)

This week, lawmakers in the House and Senate unveiled two competing visions for the next farm bill. Now, before your eyes glaze over, let’s not forget: the farm bill is misbranded at this point. Sure, it doles out billions in farm subsidies, crop insurance, agricultural research and all that jazz, but it’s now largely (roughly 80 percent) nutrition funding, with the lion’s share of the pie going to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

American farmers, while critical to feeding the country and much of the world, make up a tiny slice of the overall U.S. population. SNAP, meanwhile, helps more than 42 million Americans afford food each month, delivering grocery benefits on a debit-like EBT card.

That’s all to say: The farm bill may sound narrow, but it’s actually a sweeping piece of legislation that affects us all. And, as I’ve noted before, it’s increasingly difficult to pass a farm bill in a highly polarized Congress, particularly with razor-thin margins in both chambers. 

Food Fix readers may recall that Washington is already behind on the farm bill process. Congress didn’t have its act together when the 2018 farm bill was set to expire last fall, so lawmakers approved a one-year extension. Since then, however, there’s been next to no action. Most people are pessimistic about getting a farm bill done this year – though watching Congress recently patch together a major foreign-aid package and TikTok ban is a sign that the lawmaking gears can occasionally turn.

Competing bills: Though the overall farm-bill pessimism remains, this week we saw the first substantial moves in a long, long while. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) on Wednesday released a high-level outline for his forthcoming farm bill, which is set to be considered before the committee May 23. 

Also on Wednesday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) released her own detailed outline of a version of the farm bill she’s been working on. (No committee hearings are planned – the Senate likely would not move forward unless there was a bipartisan bill.)

Same ol’ standoff: The competing proposals confirm that Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a standoff on some of their biggest policy disagreements. Two of the biggest areas of tension? Whether billions in new climate funding for agriculture (from the Inflation Reduction Act or IRA) must be specifically used to incentivize certain climate-friendly farm practices and whether USDA should be able to substantially increase SNAP benefits when the department updates the calculations that underpin them.

Republicans firmly believe the IRA money should be able to fund all manner of conservation initiatives at USDA, beyond only climate-centered ones. They also want explicit language stating USDA must keep future SNAP-benefit updates cost-neutral (outside of adjustments for food inflation). 

Democrats firmly believe the IRA money should only be used for climate-focused practices and that USDA should not have to keep future updates to SNAP-benefit calculations cost-neutral.

SNAP is key: There are plenty of other issues that remain unresolved, but SNAP is once again the most difficult. Fights over cutting SNAP have consumed previous farm bill cycles – the 2018 farm bill cycle was particularly ugly. That bill only made it to the finish line because House Republicans eventually dropped their bid to impose stricter work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents who qualify for SNAP benefits.

This time around, we aren’t seeing a fight about work requirements – which would have dropped more than a million people off of SNAP. Instead there’s a clash over a theoretical future increase to SNAP benefits – showing just how successfully Democrats and anti-hunger groups have shifted this debate. 

Thrifty Food Plan in the spotlight: This whole dispute centers on a little-known thing called the Thrifty Food Plan, a food-costs analysis that’s used to calculate SNAP benefits. The House farm bill is expected to stipulate that future updates to the Thrifty Food Plan must be cost-neutral, which would restrict USDA from substantially raising or slashing benefits. 

(Back story: The previous farm bill required an update to the Thrifty Food Plan and the Biden administration used that as an opportunity to bump up maximum SNAP benefits by about 21 percent overall, adding more than $250 billion to SNAP’s overall price tag over the next decade. This infuriated Republicans: They argued that Congress, who is typically in charge of setting funding levels for SNAP, had approved no such increase in spending.)

Chairman Thompson has been adamant that nothing in his farm bill cuts SNAP benefits for anyone on the program (a real departure from past cycles): “To be clear, House Republicans are not cutting, decreasing, or impacting SNAP benefits or eligibility for them,” Thompson recently wrote in an opinion piece. 

Interestingly, the House farm bill actually expands access to SNAP “for participants either formerly disallowed or beholden to arcane restriction,” per the summary released this week. (On this point, the House and Senate may agree: It seems likely both bills would nix the existing lifetime ban on individuals with a previous felony drug conviction.)

Still, Democrats are angry about making future Thrifty Food Plan updates cost-neutral. So far, I’ve seen condemnation across the board of this as a cut to SNAP that will not be tolerated. (Maintaining cost-neutrality is estimated to save just shy of $30 billion over a decade. This may sound like a lot until you consider that the price tag for SNAP is more than $1 trillion over the same period.)

Democratic votes are needed for there to be any chance of a farm bill passing the House, which makes this all a royal standoff. 

I was in Chairwoman Stabenow’s office this week – she briefed a small group of reporters on the contents of her farm bill – and I asked her about this Thrifty Food Plan debate. She was clear that imposing cost-neutrality on the updates was an absolute no-go for her, unless of course House Republicans want to only stipulate that an update can’t be used to decrease the benefits. Stabenow noted that though a future benefit increase from a Thrifty Food Plan update might not seem like much money, it very much matters to low-income households. (An update could amount to less than a dollar per day in added benefits, she noted, maybe even 25 or 50 cents per day in a bump up.)

“When you are living on $6 a day – that may not seem like a lot to somebody getting a $125,000 farm payment – but if you’re living on $6 a day that’s a lot of money, that’s real money,” Stabenow said. 

The chairwoman takes particular issue with moving any of the savings from the House Republican proposal out of the nutrition section of the farm bill. 

“Taking money out of nutrition has never passed a farm bill,” she noted. “It breaks the coalition and we don’t get a bill. This is groundhog day for me. It never works.”

She later reemphasized her point on not reigning in the Thrifty Food Plan: “This is a hard red line for me.”

Zooming out: So the good news (for those interested in a farm bill happening) is that Congress is starting to go through some of the motions of doing a farm bill – putting pen to paper and floating policy ideas. In theory, this amounts to progress. But it’s not clear to me that this week moved us forward much at all.

During the briefing with journalists, longtime ag policy reporter Phil Brasher (recently named editor-in-chief of Agri-Pulse) noted that many of the thorny issues remain the same – in essence, it didn’t feel like we were any closer to a compromise. 

“May not be,” Stabenow replied. “I’m putting a full bill on the table … if folks want a farm bill, let’s get serious.”


What I’m reading

Are milk and ground beef safe from bird flu? What the latest testing tells us. (Yahoo News). “Inactive bits of bird flu virus have found their way into some of the U.S. food and milk supply amid the latest outbreak of the disease in animals. It comes as the virus, also known as avian flu, continues to spread among a growing number of mammals, most pressingly, dairy cattle. While the reports may sound scary, experts say these fragments are not dangerous, and harmful versions of the virus are unlikely to wind up in anything people eat or drink,” writes Natalie Rahhal. This is a good primer on what FDA and USDA have found so far from testing both milk and ground beef. 

The U.S. may be missing human cases of bird flu, scientists say (NPR). “Officially, there is only one documented case of bird flu spilling over from cows into humans during the current U.S. outbreak. But epidemiologist Gregory Gray suspects the true number is higher, based on what he heard from veterinarians, farm owners and the workers themselves as the virus hit their herds in his state,” reports Will Stone. ‘We know that some of the workers sought medical care for influenza-like illness and conjunctivitis at the same time the H5N1 was ravaging the dairy farms,’ says Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. ‘I don’t have a way to measure that, but it seems biologically quite plausible that they too, are suffering from the virus,’ he says.”

FDA publishes FSMA preharvest agricultural water final rule (Food Safety Magazine). This is a bit wonky so while it didn’t get much press coverage, it’s actually a big deal: FDA finally finalized its standards for water used to grow fresh produce. It’s been a long road since the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act called for this regulation. “The rule is intended to enhance the safety of water used for produce cultivation with requirements for systems-based, preharvest agricultural water assessments for hazard identification and risk management decision-making purposes. The dates for compliance (for non-sprout covered produce) with the final rule are: two years and nine months after the effective date for very small farms, one year and nine months for small farms, and nine months for all other farms,” report the Food Safety Magazine Editorial team. (History refresher: Back in 2022 I wrote about the long road to implementing ag water standards in a deep dive for Politico. See Chapter 2.)

Florida bans lab-grown meat, adding to similar efforts in three other states (NBC News). “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Wednesday banning and criminalizing the manufacture and sale of lab-grown meat in the state,” reports Natalie Kainz. “The legislation joins similar efforts from three other states — Alabama, Arizona and Tennessee — that have also looked to stop the sale of lab-grown meat, which is believed to still be years away from commercial viability. ‘Florida is fighting back against the global elite’s plan to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish or bugs to achieve their authoritarian goals,’ DeSantis said.”

Americans eating more leftovers to buy less food at stores, Pringles maker says (Bloomberg). “Americans have been buying less food at supermarkets amid persistent inflation, and the head of the maker of Pringles chips and Cheez-It snacks thinks he’s figured out a major factor behind the change,” reports Deena Shanker. “Kellanova Chief Executive Officer Steve Cahillane isn’t seeing ‘volume destruction,’ in which Americans would actually eat significantly less, he said in a call with investors Thursday. Rather, they’re incorporating new behaviors, such as ‘making sure leftovers are really used.’ He called that a ‘consumer behavior that will remain.’”

USDA to keep the potato classified as vegetable, not a grain (Senate). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a press release Wednesday that she received a call from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “who told her the USDA will officially support keeping potatoes classified as a vegetable, and not a grain.” The move comes after a bipartisan letter Collins led with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) “opposing any reclassification of potatoes as a grain instead of a vegetable, or including recommendations that potatoes and grains are interchangeable as changes to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) are being considered,” per the release.


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