Farm bill hung up on SNAP benefits

The long-stalled farm bill, which must be renewed by September, is getting closer to passage, but faces hurdles surrounding food assistance as Republicans and Democrats trade barbs.

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National News

June 7, 2024 - 2:50 PM

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT) speaks on gun legislation at the U.S. Capitol on Dec.14, 2023, in Washington, DC. The House Democrats held a press conference urging Republican lawmakers to take up gun safety legislation on the 11th anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS
Mark Alford

The long-stalled farm bill took a step forward in the House of Representatives last month as a Republican-led proposal made it out of the agriculture committee.

The clock is ticking as the extension of the 2018 Farm Bill, which expired eight months ago, ends in September.

Yet food assistance will likely be a flashpoint in the discussions ahead.

More than 41 million Americans rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program monthly to put food on the table. The program takes a lot of funding – about 80% of the farm bill’s massive budget goes to SNAP.

House farm bill proposal

The House draft suggests placing limits on how the Thrifty Food Plan is updated in the future. The Thrifty Food Plan is a basket of foods that represents a “nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet prepared at home” for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The money people receive through SNAP is calculated by how much that basket of food costs.

Right now, the plan is updated every five years based on food prices, food composition data, consumer data and dietary standards. The new proposal suggests updating the cost of the plan only for inflation.

According to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson – a Republican from Pennsylvania — the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the limit would cut SNAP by $30 billion over the next 10 years.

“The cut would take away a day’s worth of benefits from the participants each month, then it would rise to two days of benefits each month,” said Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes from Connecticut during discussions. “You may think losing one or two days of food is not significant. But I do think it’s quite significant for a low-income family trying to make ends meet.”

But Republican Rep. Mark Alford of Missouri said he’s focused on making the program more efficient, not slashing benefits.

“Democrats feel like we’re trying to cut the program. And that’s not the case,” Alford said. “If we can move to a program that has more integrity, more health benefits, it is going to be greater for our nation and greater for our taxpayers.”

Alford points to parts of the bill that would allow frozen and canned produce to be covered, create an accountability office and expand eligibility for the program.

Other SNAP proposals in the House’s farm bill draft would:

• Add frozen, fresh, canned and dried fruits and vegetables as SNAP-eligible products 

• Create an office of program integrity to focus on SNAP and address erroneous payments and other inefficiencies 

• Allow individuals with past drug offenses to receive SNAP

• Direct the USDA to issue formal guidance on notifying eligible college students that they qualify for SNAP

“We don’t feel there are cuts to SNAP — we’re just tightening up some of the issues,” Alford said. “I don’t want anyone who is truly hungry, truly needy and can’t work to go to bed hungry at night.” Megan Hamann, a community organizer focused on food and nutrition access with Nebraska Appleseed, said framing limits to the Thrifty Food Plan as anything but cuts to SNAP is a “pretty problematic characterization, because it would erode SNAP’s buying power over time.”

“So while families wouldn’t see their benefits go down in an immediate sense, SNAP would be increasingly less efficient as time goes on,” she said. “What we would see is a decline in how well the program actually works in people’s lives.”

Hamann said she hopes the Senate’s farm bill proposal can find support, which would maintain the regular re-evaluation of SNAP benefits.

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