Bipartisan panel recommends SNAP drink ban, job aid

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 4, 2015 - A congressional commission charged with finding ways to combat hunger and improve nutrition recommends barring the use of food stamps for some sugary beverages and instead providing incentives for buying healthful foods. 

The report by the National Commission on Hunger also suggests Congress and the Agriculture Department take steps that encourage recipients to find jobs or to increase their earnings. 

Lets Talk Food

The bipartisan commission, composed of nine experts selected by House and Senate leaders, resulted from a provision in the fiscal 2014 spending bill.  The commission members started meeting monthly in May 2014, visited eight cities and held hearings in seven of them. The report said the recommendations reflected ideas on which the members could find consensus despite their differences. 

“Because our own backgrounds and disciplines are diverse, we often saw and learned the same things but reached different conclusions. We have sought to set those differences aside in favor of reporting on what we did agree upon, and we have synthesized it to present an overall picture of hunger in America today.”

One of the most controversial recommendations is likely to be the proposal to restrict beverage purchases through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are now known. The commission said Congress should consult with the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences and others in deciding what sugar-sweetened beverages to limit.  

“SNAP benefits should help families meet their nutritional needs, not contribute to negative health outcomes through poor nutrition choices,” the report said. 

Meanwhile, the commission said USDA should continue to develop ways “for incentivizing purchases of healthier foods” and to promote cost-sharing with states, local governments and non-profit groups. 

Other recommendations: 

-Congress and the USDA should put more focus on job placement, job training, and career development  for SNAP recipients who are able to work. 

-It should be easier for households to transition from SNAP benefits as their income rises. There is evidence that some former recipients experience hunger when their benfits end, but an extension of benefits could “help them navigate pay lags and adjust household food budgeting,” the report says. 

-Congress should allow USDA to streamline the application process for child nutrition programs, including school meals and summer feeding programs. 

-President Obama should create a White House Leadership Council to End Hunger to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to eliminate hunger.

USDA released a statement that officials would review the recommendations. “There is no question that federal nutrition assistance is a critical lifeline for millions of eligible children, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities, and we appreciate the commission's focus on ways to expand access to healthy, nutritious foods.” 

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Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said the report “underscores how fundamentally important and effective our federal nutrition programs are to reducing hunger.”

But McGovern, in a statement, cautioned against linking SNAP to efforts to promote work. “SNAP is first and foremost a food program, not a jobs program. SNAP cannot be expected to solve the broader economic challenges or barriers faced by people ready and willing to work so they can provide for their families,” McGovern said. 

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