House Republicans and Democrats on Thursday sparred over USDA nutrition initiatives at a hearing on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, highlighting the partisan divide over the program in the run-up to the 2023 farm bill.

The debate in the House Ag Committee offered an early look inside a potentially contentious title in the new farm bill and provided a preview for how the legislation could take shape if Republicans capture Congress in November. 

Democrats urged continuation of current funding levels for SNAP and praised USDA’s recent changes to the Thrifty Food Plan, which increased benefits by an average of about $36 per month. Republicans, however, called for the farm bill's Title IV to be examined closely, potentially for fiscal cuts or other changes.

“The vital importance of SNAP is not theoretical," Nutrition Subcommittee chair Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., said. "We spend a lot of money on a lot of programs in Congress. Programs that feed people have to be included in those numbers.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Democrats are open to improving SNAP, but warned against funding cuts.

“The thing that gives people like me pause, to my friends who are calling for touching SNAP or reforming SNAP [is] when you guys were calling the shots, that meant cutting the program by $20 billion and actually throwing people off the benefit,” McGovern said. “I would fight that tooth and nail.”

The committee's ranking member, Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., said, "We must come together to improve access to and promote healthy foods, and improved nutrition. Employment, healthcare costs, and general longevity are highly dependent on the foods that we consume."

"Together with modernized nutrition education initiatives, the nutrition research funding secured in the consolidated appropriations act of 2021, and the existing library of research on healthy eating, USDA is uniquely positioned to improve the nutrition of millions of households, not just those deemed healthy," Thompson said.

"I believe there is still a focus from this administration and FNS to increase SNAP benefit allotments and expand eligibility even further," Rep. Rodney Davis said at the hearing after referring to what he called "an  accelerated, debatable Thrifty Food Plan update."

Thompson and other Republicans also said Democrats were prematurely staking out their ground for the upcoming legislation.

“I’m very frustrated at this moment that my Democratic colleagues have already drawn a line in the sand that this program will not be touched in the next reauthorization,” Thompson said at the hearing. “How can we be so certain everything in Title IV is perfect and untouchable?”

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Thompson said it was too early to have “foregone conclusions” about making cuts to SNAP, but said he wants to ensure it’s “work[ing] the way that the intent of Congress had … helping to lift people up out of poverty so that they wake up one morning and no longer require that type of assistance.”

McGovern, however, defended the program's utility. "I get a little frustrated when I hear things like 'Thrifty Food Plan scheme,' or talk about how SNAP encourages idleness or disengagement," he said. "I find it, to be honest with you, offensive ... In terms of the Thrifty Food Plan, you were asked in the last farm bill, when the Republicans controlled the House, to actually reevaluate the program ... you did that"  

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"The majority of people who are eligible to work who are on SNAP actually do work, they're doing everything we expect them to do but they still earn so little" that they qualify for the benefit, he said.

One proposal discussed involves allowing hot foods to be eligible under SNAP.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said doing so would allow for working families to buy easy to prepare and multiple-use foods like a rotisserie chicken.

“Under current policy, a parent on their way home currently cannot pick up from the local grocery store a hot rotisserie chicken for their children’s dinner,” Spanberger said. “It’s an economical way to not only feed your family that night with hot food, but it’s an important way … for people to make those dollars work harder and feed better.”

Reps. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., in January introduced a bill to include hot foods in SNAP, the SNAP PLUS Act.

Stacy Dean, the USDA deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said since hot foods are prohibited in the statute, she’s glad there's a bill to address that.    

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said he has no “problem with a rotisserie chicken being available as part of the program,” but said he does “have a problem with a happy meal or a drive-through being part of it.” Scott suggested the program mirror the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which comes with more restrictions on what participants can buy.

Dean said she “shares that concern” over diet health and pointed to USDA’s work on the Nutrition Security Initiative and MyPlate, but said she wants to “start from an affirming place.”

“We want to start from believing that everyone wants the best from their kids because they do, but that just isn’t within reach for a lot of families,” Dean said.

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