Anti-hunger groups who have mobilized to oppose the House GOP farm bill have focused much of their criticism on its cut to the projected cost of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, but they also are concerned the legislation would result in limits on SNAP participants' food choices.

Before and after the release of a farm bill framework and draft bill from House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa, Democrats and anti-hunger groups have been pushing back against restrictions on future USDA updates of the Thrifty Food Plan, the model of eating expenditures that is used to set SNAP benefits. 

The TFP provision would save $27 billion, some of which would stay in the nutrition title. The rest of the money would be moved into other titles to beef up trade promotion grants and other programs. 

Thompson maintains the draft bill would keep future TFP updates cost neutral and prevent future administrations from arbitrarily cutting the program. Thompson’s staff also notes there will still be a cost of living adjustment in the TFP each year.

But Salaam Bhatti, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center, said the 2021 TFP update had a modest but meaningful impact on benefits, and that the restrictions on future TFP updates wouldn't account for changes in nutritional guidance and buying patterns, issues Thrifty Food Plan revisions are supposed to address. 

“These are factors within the Thrifty Food Plan that are very important to keep in mind that when the reevaluation happens, you can't expect it to be cost-neutral, because all of these other market forces are not cost-neutral,” Bhatti said. “It doesn't make sense for us to expect that the revaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan will be cost-neutral as well.”

Some of the $16 billion in SNAP savings that would be kept in the nutrition title would go into efforts like the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Healthy Food Financing Initiative, Community Food projects and Emergency Food Assistance Program. 

“A wide array of opportunity in this title, that when you distill it is pro-work, pro-access, pro-integrity and pro-health,” said a House Agriculture Committee aide of the nutrition title during a press briefing last week.

Glenn G.T. Thompson.jpgHouse Agriculture Committee Chair Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.

The House bill also includes measures that would expand SNAP eligibility and access for seniors and formerly incarcerated individuals with drug convictions.

These provisions, and their counterparts in Stabenow’s proposed framework are encouraging, said Vince Hall, chief government relations officer for Feeding America. 

Hunger groups worry the bill would broadly refocus SNAP as a program designed to prevent chronic health conditions. 

“There's real concern about efforts to fundamentally redefine SNAP from an anti-hunger program to a laboratory of experimentation with American’s diets,” Hall said. 

While Feeding America supports policies that promote health and good nutrition, Hall said it’s also important for programs like SNAP to offer flexibility and independence for participants. For some families from diverse cultures who benefit from SNAP, some of their staple food items may be deemed not nutritional by the federal government, Hall said. 

                Cut through the clutter! We deliver the news you need to stay informed about farm, food and rural issues. Sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse here.

“To assume at the outset that administrators in Washington are going to competently make dietary decisions for 41 million people on the SNAP program, sensitive to culture, sensitive to demographics, sensitive to health care needs, is probably a dangerous assumption,” Hall said. 

The House draft includes a provision requiring USDA to monitor SNAP participant purchases and issue annual diet quality reports. Bhatti said this appears to be an effort to restrict SNAP choice in the name of improving health outcomes. 

Some SNAP policy experts disagreed with this assessment and welcomed the draft bill’s efforts to refocus SNAP on nutrition. 

“The nutrition is in the title of the program, and yet there really isn't much of a nutrition focus,” said Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and Rowe Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Currently, it’s difficult for policymakers to make reforms without a solid understanding of how SNAP is performing, Rachidi said. The diet quality reports listed in the draft text would provide crucial information for the decision-making process and help track if SNAP is meeting its goals.

“I think that there is great importance in trying to re-calibrate the program towards a nutrition program and ensure that it's actually supporting healthy nutrition and not contributing to the health problems that many low-income households, as well as other households, are facing,” Rachidi said. 

The intent of the declaration of policy and data collection is not to create restrictions, a Republican aide said. Given some of the public response, the draft text officially submitted Tuesday includes "gentle" tweaks to the declaration of policy, according to the aide. 

There's been a lot of investment into SNAP and school meals, but food insecurity has seen little improvement, the aide said. The diet quality report, specifically, was intended to establish regular reporting for SNAP and non-SNAP participants to determine if anything has an impact on food insecurity. 

Rachidi said the draft makes no major reforms to SNAP eligibility, likely in an effort to get bipartisan support. 

Rachidi said there were missed opportunities in the bill. She had hoped to see the bill roll back SNAP work requirement exemptions put in place as a result of the debt ceiling concerns. 

The proposed text does not amend underlying work requirements in SNAP but modifies employment and training programs and changes how income is calculated in determining benefits, said Katie Bergh, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

The draft acknowledges that food assistance in Puerto Rico is inadequate and provides some more funding for its nutrition assistance block grant. However, Bergh said it does not put Puerto Rico on a clear path to join the SNAP program as available in other parts of the United States.

FRAC's Bhatti is concerned the bill could privatize aspects of SNAP administration. Typically, states are encouraged to hire merit-based employees to administer SNAP, which helps ensure the integrity of the program and prevents political influence, he said. 

The bill would allow states to hire contractors if there are timeliness issues, understaffing or in cases of a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. Historically, privatization of welfare programs has led to “administrative chaos” and participants having issues accessing their benefits or the correct amount of benefits, Bhatti said. 

Agencies are understaffed across the country, resulting in longer processing times, particularly after the pandemic. Rather than moving toward privatization, Bhatti said there are opportunities for states to improve salaries and benefits for these employees. 

For more news, go to