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SNAP benefits are a huge part of the farm bill and a big point of contention for lawmakers

A shopper peruses selections of fresh produce at Betty Ann Market in Mascoutah. While Mascoutah is included in areas that can be surveyed for the Consumer Price Index, counties without a town of at least 10,000 people are not eligible.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A shopper peruses selections of fresh produce at Betty Ann Market in Mascoutah, Illinois.

The overdue farm bill is finally making its way through Congress, after the House agriculture committee recently advanced a proposal. Food assistance is likely to be one of the biggest sticking points as the draft moves forward.

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 day,” 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 from 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,” he 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.”

This story is part of Harvest Public Media's ongoing coverage of the 2023 Farm Bill.
This story is part of Harvest Public Media's ongoing coverage of the 2023 Farm Bill.

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.

The House’s draft has a long way to go before it makes it into law as the new farm bill; it will need final passage in the House and endorsement from the Senate.

“Everyone knows that this bill would never become law. The Senate won’t accept it and the administration won’t accept it,” Rep. David Scott of Georgia, the ranking Democrat on the House’s Agriculture committee, said during discussions. “And while this bill is a giant misstep, it nevertheless begins our journey toward passing a farm bill.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. 

Elizabeth Rembert reports on agriculture out of Nebraska for Harvest Public Media.