Witnesses at a House Ag hearing on nutrition programs called for a stronger emphasis on health outcomes and improving job opportunities for those receiving food assistance. Committee members, meanwhile, used the hearing to vocalize their positions on potential reforms in the coming farm bill.

Following last week's vote on a bill to raise the debt ceiling and increase the maximum age for able-bodied adults without dependents subject to work requirements to keep their nutrition benefits, Democrats voiced their opposition to any further cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the farm bill. 

But Republican members outlined further areas of concern and sought insight on SNAP benefits received by noncitizens as well as potential changes to the program to incorporate hot or prepared foods, such as rotisserie chickens or prepared foods at convenience stores; current restrictions bar those types of purchases, instead emphasizing the purchase of ingredients to be prepared at the home.

In opening comments, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., said those debt ceiling negotiations “laid bare the strong emotions and opinions across the political spectrum” as it relates to SNAP. However, he said when one in four Americans participate in at least one of USDA’s 15 food and nutrition assistance programs during a typical year, “it is time to redefine success.”

Rep. Brad Finstad, R-Minn., the panel's nutrition subcommittee chair, pointed out that in 2001, the nation spent $17 billion on SNAP.

“This year SNAP is projected to cost taxpayers $124 billion, an increase of over 700%. Meanwhile, food insecurity in this country has remained largely unchanged,” Finstad said. “It is not because of a lack of investment. We have definitely put our money where our mouth is in this country.”

Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and Rowe Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in the course of her research, “consistent and sustained employment is one of the most crucial ingredients for reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility.”

In addition, poor health is one of the largest barriers to employment for low-income Americans. “SNAP’s lack of dietary guidelines often leaves its recipients in poor health, limiting their ability to work and escape poverty,” Rachidi told members.

She said Congress should do more through SNAP to encourage employment, not discourage it. Employment training programs are not very effective, she said, because they are largely voluntary and funding is fairly limited.

Ranking member David Scott, D-Ga., said there are opportunities to improve SNAP nutrition education and incentivize healthy eating, citing the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program’s impact on fruit and vegetable consumption. Earlier this week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said it would be difficult to find additional funds to increase GusNIP in this farm bill.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a staunch nutrition program advocate, argued food costs impede healthy eating for SNAP recipients. 

“I would say to those who are saying we should require SNAP recipients have healthier diets, maybe one of the things we can do is expand the benefit. You try having a healthy diet on an average of about $6 per person per day.”

McGovern was one of several committee Democrats pledging to oppose the farm bill if it included cuts to SNAP.

Many states utilize a program to double SNAP dollars spent at local farmers' markets. Tikki Brown, Minnesota Department of Human Services assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services, said the incentives help create more access to fruits and vegetables as well as help agricultural producers. 

“Market bucks programs or other farmer market programs that match state funds to expand SNAP dollars can incentivize both health and nutrition,” she said.   

Rachidi advocated for more restrictions on the types of foods purchased through SNAP, although Democrats pushed back that this could create a negative stigma for those using SNAP dollars to purchase foods.

Patrick Stover, director of the Institute for Advancing Health through Agriculture at Texas A&M University, testified that the rising expenses of diet-related chronic diseases cost the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion and require a new policy approach to tackling food insecurity.

“While historic efforts to eliminate hunger and food insecurity continue to be important, hunger cannot be considered in the absence of health,” he said. “To put it bluntly, this disconnect between food and health threatens agriculture, the food supply and the health of our society.”

He acknowledged previous attempts to link health with hunger but said incremental changes will not move the needle.

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“If we are going to change the goal to include health, we need to rethink back across the entire agriculture value chain,” he said, including by looking at the incentives, policies, programs and innovations to achieve that goal. “I think it may be time to rip the Band-aid off.”

In turning the attention to production agriculture, Stover pointed to technologies such as gene editing, CRISPR and more that could increase both the quantity and quality of the food produced. Use of those technologies, he argued, could also promote health that changes the micronutrient composition and reduces caloric density of foods.

“We have the tools and technology to make the food system anything we want it to be. We just have to decide what we want,” Stover said.

“There are so many things we can do, but we have to incentivize that in a way that production agriculture will adopt these, because the model they’re in now, margins are very low because of that endpoint of keeping hunger as low as possible,” which pushes for cheap food, Stover added. 

“We need a different economic model. We have to somehow bring together health care economics and ag economics to make this work because otherwise, we’re going to continue to lose a lot of our precious farmland to more profitable purposes like solar panels.”

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