No matter how far you fall in our country, there are trusted programs at various levels of government to help pick people back up.  

That’s why the upcoming expiration of the 2018 Farm Bill, set for Sept. 30th, is drawing so much attention on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers work overtime to renew it and advance partisan changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  

Two particular proposals, the Healthy SNAP Act by Rep. Josh Brecheen (R-Okla.), which is a companion to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) similarly named legislation, and the SNAP Pilot Program, threaten to erode consumer choice, burden small businesses and unnecessarily expand government intervention in the daily lives of SNAP recipients. They do little to reform the social safety net in a meaningful way, and instead focus on the micromanagement of individual diets.  

Fair minds can debate, and many do, the merits of these programs that make up what we call the “safety net” — who it should serve, and how long people should be able to make use of it. Most in Washington tend to agree that these programs are necessary and that reforms of some kind are periodically required. As Congress gears up for the next Farm Bill reauthorization, proposed changes deserve scrutiny. 

The USDA’s SNAP Pilot Program would move to categorize over 600,000 products based on being “nutrient-dense.” It sounds simple, but it’s not. Foods rich in vitamins and minerals that contain little added sugars, saturated fat and sodium would meet the mark of being “nutrient-dense”; that means fruits, veggies, seafood, beans, lentils, eggs, lentils, chicken and lean meats. However, whole-fat yogurt, white rice, granola and most peanut butter would fall short.  

These are the same foods that tend to be promoted for the Women, Infants, and Children dietary program known as WIC. SNAP is used by families, and families’ food needs are wide-ranging and ever-changing. In March, when asked about this subjective standard by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack couldn’t directly answer if the nutrient requirements would eliminate whole milk from eligibility.  

“I don’t think we have many of the answers to the questions that you raised, which is why you have a pilot — to find out whether or not a system like this does work, or doesn’t,” said Vilsack, who then pointed to Congress as the source of clarity on nutrient density. Politics has no place in consumers’ experience shopping for food.  

This broad classification system would leave room for arbitrary decision-making, placing an undue burden on grocery store clerks and consumers alike.  

Both the Senate and House versions of the Healthy SNAP Act go after the presence of “junk food” in the shopping carts of benefit recipients. It is well-intentioned, but a harmful policy proposal.  

SNAP is unique in that it functions like a subsidy for groceries, rather than a program like WIC, which grants direct access to a set amount of milk, cheese, yogurt, juice, peanut butter and other essentials for newborns. Former deputy administrator for policy support at the USDA, Richard Lucas, told The Nation’s Health in 2015 that SNAP “is intended for increasing purchasing power for food you can buy at retail outlets. It’s very, very broad.”  

Studies cited by Lucas regarding choice versus rigid guidelines showed that SNAP recipients were better off with maximum flexibility. SNAP shoppers often use their full allotment of funds within 24 hours of it being made available. They are hungry and load up on food immediately.  

Here’s the problem. Most protein and “nutrient-rich” foods are the ones that spoil fastest. SNAP shoppers more often need food that will hold for a full month.  

Their lifestyles are different from higher-income shoppers who have grocery stores on every other corner where produce sections are freshly stocked. Low-income neighborhoods are, unfortunately, quite different — a fact that well-intentioned politicians and activists often fail to recognize.  

Another factor about the spending of SNAP benefits remains the stigma attached to using them. Shoppers in need of that assistance want to get in and out without discussion of their benefits. Even the fear of haggling with a reluctant cashier over their selections has shown to deter those people from getting food when it’s needed.  

Proponents argue that these measures will lead to cost savings. The reality is quite different. Monthly SNAP benefits would remain unchanged even if new restrictions were implemented, rendering any potential savings illusory. 

The Healthy SNAP Act and the SNAP Pilot Program are misguided attempts to regulate consumer behavior and expand government control over dietary choices. Congress should continue to have healthy debates about these programs, but they shouldn’t be based on policing people’s choices at the supermarket.  

Originally published here



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