If you’re concerned that food stamp users might be buying too much soda and junk food, you share something in common with at least one member of Congress.
According to a report from Politico, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said Monday that he is concerned about the amount of soda that users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are buying and plans to call a hearing on SNAP purchases.
Conaway’s concern, according to Politico, stems from data on the program released last fall by the Department of Agriculture.
That data found that SNAP households spent more on soft drinks than any other category of groceries. A front-page story in the New York Times last month characterized SNAP users as people who bought sodas and other sugar-sweetened soft drinks by the cartload.
The problem with that Times story, as The Huffington Post noted, is that it mischaracterized the USDA report’s main finding: There were “no major differences” in grocery purchases between households participating in SNAP and those that did not. In fact, the difference in soft-drink purchases between SNAP and non-SNAP households was a negligible 1.5 cents per dollar.
The Times story was widely panned by policy experts as well as groups including Media Matters for America and the Center for American Progress’ Talk Poverty project. Even the Times’ public editor, Liz Spayd, wrote that she sided with the readers who had criticized the piece, admitting that it “didn’t do much to advance the discussion” on the issue of so-called food stamps.
Still, the damage — potentially providing critics of the SNAP program with evidence that appeared to confirm their beliefs — may have already been done.
Some states are working on proposals to limit SNAP purchases to foods deemed to be healthful and are seemingly confident that the election of President Donald Trump and a change in leadership at the USDA will make the agency more amenable to tighter state-level SNAP rules.
Last week, a Republican-backed bill in Arkansas that would ban the use of SNAP benefits to buy products like soda and candy was approved by the state House of Representatives. A similar bill was introduced by a Republican lawmaker in Tennessee, though it was pulled a week later.
Last month, health officials in Maine cited the USDA data highlighted in the Times story as they announced a plan to ask the Trump administration for a waiver that would allow them to ban the purchase of soda and junk food through SNAP.
For Mary Mayhew, Maine’s commissioner of health and human services, an appointee of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, the study “confirmed our concerns,” she told WGME-TV, the CBS affiliate in Portland.
Similar restrictions are also backed by some public health advocates and groups like the American Medical Association. But anti-poverty groups say such changes unfairly target low-income people, may add to the stigma of using SNAP benefits and may do little to encourage healthful diets.
Trump’s nominee to lead the USDA, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, has not indicated any new direction for SNAP. And Republican leaders of the House Agriculture Committee stated last year, after completing a two-year evaluation of SNAP, that it had no plans to slash the program.
Still, food policy experts are anticipating changes.
Speaking on a panel at a Food Tank summit in Washington, D.C., last week, former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said she expected to see efforts to either reduce SNAP spending or add restrictions to the program as debate on the 2018 farm bill, which includes funding for the program, begins.
Still, nothing is certain. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) described the current atmosphere in Washington as “the foggiest crystal ball” she’s ever seen and noted that conservatives who have previously pushed for SNAP funding to be separated from other parts of the farm bill may have more influence in crafting the new legislation.
“The Heritage Foundation could write the entire farm bill,” Pingree quipped, referring to the conservative think tank.
Food stamps weren’t always controversial, particularly within the context of the farm bill. The program was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and was long seen as a win-win for Republicans because it helped farmers’ bottom lines and Democrats because it helped the urban poor.
But criticism of food stamps isn’t new, either. Complaints about the program grew during the 1970s to the point where conservative politicians, such as President Ronald Reagan, who slashed the program dramatically, railed against “welfare queens” who relied on it.
No matter what happens with SNAP funding, supporters of the food stamp program say critics can’t deny its well-documented success at reducing hunger among low-income Americans. One study found that SNAP can reduce hunger among high-risk children by 20 percent.
That success means that a decrease in funding of the program would lead to more hungry Americans, according to Craig Gundersen, a University of Illinois agriculture professor.
“Many government programs don’t work, but SNAP works and has been an amazing success,” Gundersen told HuffPost. “I can’t think of another program that is more successful at accomplishing its goals.”
In the meantime, SNAP advocates are buckling in for a fight.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research and Action Center, told HuffPost. “We’re not making leaps of assumptions until we see what it is that actually gets put into play, but we are being very diligent to be prepared for any policy debate.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.