Why the right sees the debt ceiling fight as a way to cut food stamps

Why the right’s latest attempt to cut food stamps probably won't work. Fetterman to chair Senate Ag nutrition panel. FDA report on Daily Harvest poisonings provides no answers. And why we’re drinking less but eating more dairy.

A photograph of a grocery store window with a sign indicating that SNAP benefits are welcomed.

Happy Friday, and thanks for being here. If you’re not yet a paid Food Fix subscriber, you missed my Tuesday analysis of the Biden administration’s new school meals standards, which propose a cap on added sugar for the first time. Subscribe here

Food Fix in the news: Bloomberg’s Prognosis newsletter cited my recent piece on why FDA’s foods reorganization plan is getting mixed reviews. (Hat tip to Anna Edney.) 

Look what you made them do: I thoroughly enjoyed this TikTok about how Taylor Swift’s army of fans might help bring down soaring egg prices. It’s funny – and you should never doubt the power of Swifties – but I’d be remiss to not point out that wholesale egg prices are likely plummeting due to other factors.

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Alright, let’s get to it – 



Today, in Food Fix: 

– Why the right’s latest attempt to cut food stamps probably won’t work

– Fetterman to chair Senate Ag nutrition panel

– FDA releases report on Daily Harvest poisonings with no answers

– Why we’re drinking less but eating more dairy


Why the right’s latest attempt to cut food stamps probably won’t work

We’re still months away from farm bill negotiations beginning in earnest, but that hasn’t stopped a handful of conservatives from trying to use the fight over raising the debt ceiling to extract spending cuts. One potential bargaining chip? The politically controversial idea of imposing stricter work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (AKA food stamp) participants. 

Making it harder for so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents” (or ABAWDs) to qualify for SNAP benefits is a perennial – and politically polarizing – fight that usually happens within the confines of the farm bill, a big ol’ food and farming bill Congress is supposed to reauthorize every five years. (The term “farm bill” is almost a misnomer at this point, as the bill is now roughly 85 percent nutrition spending, but I digress.) 

So far, conservatives have had no luck stiffening work requirements through the farm bill process. They lack support for this in the Senate, and you can’t get a farm bill done without sign off from both chambers.

Enter the debt ceiling: Because Washington continues to spend more than it brings in – and has for some time – the country’s debt limit needs to be raised fairly regularly. The latest projection for raising the current limit puts us at sometime this summer. Since this is considered must-pass legislation – not raising the ceiling could cause an economic “catastrophe” – it’s increasingly used as a point of leverage.

Five right-flank Republicans – Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Dan Bishop (N.C.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), and Ralph Norman (S.C.) – sent a letter to President Joe Biden this week urging him to enact work requirements as a way to “cut irresponsible spending in order to address the looming national debt crisis.”

“Commonsense welfare reform could save the United States billions of dollars,” they wrote. (Not to diminish billions of taxpayer dollars, but for context: The national debt is $31 trillion.)

House Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) also raised the specter of work requirements for benefit recipients in a committee memo released this week, suggesting that reinstating work requirements in SNAP and TANF (or cash welfare, to some) could save “tens of billions and spur economic growth.” (The memo also called for reducing fraud across SNAP and the Child Tax Credit, which the committee said would save “roughly” $70 billion, though I’m not sure how they reached this number, and I didn’t hear back when I asked.)

“House Republicans will pay our debts and protect the good faith and credit of the United States, but we will not give President Biden an unlimited line of credit,” the committee said in a press release.

As Erik Wasson of Bloomberg reported this week: “The tentative list [of cuts from the committee]…could form the basis of an eventual proposed accord to avoid a market-rattling US default sometime this summer. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is hoping to meet President Joe Biden as soon as this week to continue talks on raising the $31.4 trillion US limit, which was reached in January.”

All of this posturing raises the question: If you can’t push work requirements through in a farm bill, can you in a debt ceiling deal?

Probably not. I talked to several sources on and off the Hill who have been through many of these battles before and the consensus was resoundingly “no.”

One Republican aide referred to the conservatives’ letter as “nonsensical nonsense” from “the loathsome five.” More than a few people mentioned to me that Arrington – who represents a West Texas district that leads the country in cotton production – should be careful about playing footsie with controversies that could ultimately blow up the farm bill, which some of his constituents benefit greatly from.

House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.), for his part, did not hold back when asked about the letter to Biden. “If those folks really wanted to be involved and be influential, maybe they should have signed up for the Agriculture Committee,” Thompson told Philip Brasher at Agri-Pulse this week

Small potatoes: The fact that SNAP is getting sucked into the debt ceiling chatter is due in part to the fact that Medicare and Social Security – the two biggest pots of government spending – are decidedly off limits in this fight. (According to the State of the Union, at least.) 

If you take these two sacred cows off the table, two of the next-biggest entitlement targets are programs like Medicaid and SNAP. And again, I don’t want to diminish the size of SNAP: This is a major program that serves more than 40 million people in the U.S. and nearly doubled in cost during the pandemic to almost $120 billion (largely due to increased benefit levels). 

But the fact is that imposing stricter work requirements on all able-bodied adults without kids – which, to be clear, is not politically feasible – would only amount to a modest trim of the overall cost of the program because the vast majority of SNAP participants are households with children or the elderly.

Setting aside the policy questions of whether work requirements are warranted or not, it just wouldn’t save that much money in the grand scheme of the deficit (which was $1.4 trillion in fiscal year 2022). For example, back in 2018, when the Trump administration sought to clamp down on states’ ability to waive work requirements, the move was estimated at the time to save $15 billion over a decade. That comes out to roughly $1.5 billion per year. 

Nonstarter: Regardless of how much money work requirements would or wouldn’t save, in terms of the deficit, imposing work requirements on SNAP isn’t something that can get through the Senate. Not in a farm bill, and not in any type of debt ceiling deal, either. 

Don’t even start: Of course, it should be noted that Biden has repeatedly said he will not negotiate on any spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. We’ll see what happens. 


Fetterman to chair Senate Ag nutrition panel

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) is expected to chair the Senate Agriculture nutrition subcommittee, according to multiple sources familiar with the selection process.

The post was previously held by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), an outspoken critic of American farm policy and an advocate for addressing the country’s nutrition crisis. Booker is still on the agriculture committee and is expected to continue focusing on nutrition going into the farm bill.

Fetterman, who survived a stroke during his campaign last summer, is currently in the hospital after reports of being light-headed. The Pennsylvania Democrat is undergoing tests, according to press reports

Per Annie Karni at the New York Times this morning: “Tests showed no signs of another stroke and his spokesman said he was in good spirits, talking to family and staff members. But he spent a second night in the hospital on Thursday as doctors monitored him for seizures.”

In the family: While I don’t know anything about Fetterman’s interest in nutrition, a family connection caught my eye: His wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, in 2015 co-founded 412 Food Rescue, a Pittsburgh-based non-profit that rescues surplus food and connects it with people in need. She also studied at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and worked previously as a nutritionist.

What’s next: The committee is expected to soon release its full roster and subcommittee leaders.


FDA report on Daily Harvest poisonings provides no answers

The FDA recently released more than 500 pages of information regarding the 393 reports of illness tied to Daily Harvest French Lentil and Leek Crumbles. The document was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by plaintiffs attorney Bill Marler who is representing people sickened in the incident. 

The document – which I have not read in its entirety – is dated Oct. 2022 and provides plenty of details, but still doesn’t conclusively pin tara flour as the culprit. (Last summer, Daily Harvest publicly said it determined this was the issue, and Marler and others have concluded the same.)

It’s been eight months since this product was recalled over illness reports. Ultimately, 133 people were hospitalized. Some victims had gallbladders removed. It’s remarkable that we still do not have an official determination on the cause. 

The report released by FDA noted that food safety inspectors quickly visited the plant that made the crumbles – a company called Stone Gate Foods, doing business as Second Bite Foods, Inc – and didn’t find any significant issues. The agency collected 32 product and ingredient samples of Daily Harvest French Lentil and Leek Crumbles but “findings were unable to determine a potential causative agent for this incident.” 

Two suspects: “Based on component ingredient analysis, FDA identified tara protein flour and sacha inchi powder as ingredients of interest,” the documents say. (Both are plant-based protein products from South America.) “Analyses of collected samples of these ingredients did not identify any results of public health significance that could be definitively linked to reported illnesses for non-specific toxin tests, mycotoxin tests, and microbial tests.”


Why we’re drinking less but eating more dairy

Americans are consuming more dairy on a per capita basis, but the product makeup has shifted substantially away from fluid milk and toward products like cheese and yogurt, an evolution that was illustrated in this USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) chart released this week.

U.S. per capita loss-adjusted availability of dairy products, 1981 and 2021, by USDA.

Overall, U.S. dairy consumption grew slightly between 1981 to 2021, but daily cheese consumption more than doubled and consumption of yogurt grew fivefold, per ERS. 

Yet per capita fluid milk consumption fell during this time period. “Several factors contributed to this decline, including competition from alternative beverages, an aging population with differing preferences across generations, and changing consumer attitudes regarding milk fats,” ERS said.


What I’m reading

Obesity in the age of Ozempic (Vox). Jullia Belluz unpacks the complex and frankly intense debate happening right now around the new class of drugs to treat obesity (or “GLP-1-based” drugs). “While celebrities and billionaires such as Elon Musk and Michael Rubin praise the weight loss effects of these drugs, regular patients, including those with Type 2 diabetes, struggle with access, raising questions about who will really benefit from treatment,” Belluz writes. “But there’s another tension that’s emerged in the GLP-1 story: The medicines have become a lightning rod in an obesity conversation that is increasingly binary — swinging between fat acceptance and fatphobia.”

SNAP emergency allotments are ending (USDA). This infographic released by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service outlines how states have wound down stepped up pandemic benefit levels. The remaining states providing these increased levels, known as emergency allotments, will stop  after this month. That means starting in March, benefits will be significantly reduced for many households. 

“Hunger cliff” looms as 32 states set to slash food-stamp benefits (CBS). Per Aimee Picchi, the end of SNAP emergency allotments “will impact more than 30 million people who are enrolled in [SNAP]…Among the states where recipients are facing cuts are California and Texas, which have greatest number of people on SNAP, at 5.1 million and 3.6 million recipients, respectively.” The story includes a helpful map of which states are ending increased benefits in the coming weeks.

The FDA just refused to regulate CBD (Vox). Mary Jane Gibson walks through FDA’s recent ruling on CBD and potential implications for this booming and lawless industry. “Essentially, the FDA has said that CBD is a headache that it doesn’t want to deal with, so it’s kicking things over to Congress to sort out the mess.”


Who’s who

The American Beverage Association announced that president and CEO Katherine Lugar will depart at the end of March. Lugar, who led ABA since Jan. 2019, will transition to executive vice president of global corporate affairs at Hilton. 

Cathy Cochran has been named communications director at USDA. Cochran was most recently a senior vice president at Teneo and served as press secretary at USDA during the Obama administration. 

This section is a more regular feature in Tuesday’s subscribers-only newsletter. Send your job moves to info@foodfix.co


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