WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2016 – The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday wrapped up its long-running examination of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Now, the lawmakers must decide how to use the information gleaned from the hearings as they begin to draft a new farm bill.
Texas Republican Mike Conaway announced the series of hearings shortly after assuming the committee’s chairmanship. Now, two years later, Conaway said he was wrapping up the review by examining food access issues and how they relate to SNAP recipients.
The hearing got started with a typical round of fireworks surrounding the motives behind the hearings. Committee Democrats used their opening statements to reiterate support for the program and say that the current system is functioning as intended. Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, the ranking member on the panel’s nutrition subcommittee, issued a preemptive strike against any proposed effort to “radically change” SNAP in an upcoming farm bill.
“I have no idea what a Trump administration coupled with a Republican Congress means for the future of SNAP or other safety net programs,” he said. “I’m worried, quite frankly I’m terrified.”
“If next year, the Republican leadership wants to block grant or cut the program or put more hurdles in place to deny people a benefit to put food on their table – be prepared for one hell of a fight,” he continued. “Because this is a fight worth having.”
Later in the hearing, Conaway addressed some of those concerns, saying that the hearing series was meant to “get the policies right.”
“Some of my colleagues have argued passionately about what they won’t agree to next year,” Conaway said. “This series of hearings was done simply to find out what’s working and what’s not working. It was never intended to cut SNAP or to do anything but improve it.”
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Conaway also touched on another controversial aspect of this debate: Whether to split off nutrition assistance programs from the rest of the farm bill. Conaway said he was “committed to getting both sides of the farm bill extended on time.”
“If it’s together, great; If it’s separate, great,” Conaway said. “The process is to be determined.”
Conaway said the findings from the two years of SNAP hearings – Republicans said there were 16 hearings, Democrats counted 18 – are being compiled into a report that he expects will be released at some point in December. He said the report will “further the discussion as we move toward the legislative part of what our work is about.”
Representatives from a wide variety of businesses and organizations involved in food delivery and sales spoke at the hearing about how they’re addressing access issues and how technology could help. Eric French, Amazon’s Director of Grocery, pointed out that current SNAP regulations are written for brick and mortar locations, leaving online retailers and their customers at a disadvantage.
“Congress and the USDA should develop a framework that ensures the security of these transactions without prescribing specific technologies that could quickly become obsolete,” French said. He said Amazon was excited about a USDA pilot program for online SNAP purchases, which is expected to debut in three states next summer.
However, many lawmakers pointed out that online retailing to SNAP recipients may not be the boon that some have predicted. In some cases, internet connectivity may be a barrier, while sparse populations in some areas could make food deliveries impractical. Online ordering could also make it more difficult to ensure that the person using the SNAP funds is actually the intended recipient.
But witnesses also pointed out the benefits of improved food access for SNAP recipients. Pamela Hess is the executive director for the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, which grows and sells local produce from its mobile farmers markets around low-income neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C., area. She said many of Arcadia’s customers are SNAP recipients with diabetes and other health problems, largely related to their high intake of processed foods.
“What you eat is largely dictated by the food that is convenient and affordable to you,” Hess said. “We can’t condemn people for making bad choices if they don’t have a choice to begin with.”
Hess, a former national defense journalist, cited figures that indicated amputations due to diabetes in a single year were nearly 50 times as great as were amputations from 10 years of battlefield injuries in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She specifically referenced a client of Arcadia’s mobile markets who began eating fresh greens and produce and was able to get her diabetes under control as a result.
“We are demonstrating every day that if you make wholesome food affordable and convenient, low-income people will purchase it and consume it in ever-increasing amounts,” she added. “That’s good for the rural economy and it’s great for public health.”
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