Legislative Activity

House Agriculture Committee to Debate SNAP Purchase Restrictions

This week, the House Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing to explore the effects of restricting certain purchases for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients. The committee will hear from five witnesses representing varied backgrounds. The witnesses are said to represent the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, the Dyson School at Cornell University, the Food Marketing Institute, and the Food Trust.

As with any diverse group discussing a contentious topic, Thursday’s hearing will undoubtedly unearth a wide range of emotional pleas from committee members. Nearly all liberal-leaning members oppose SNAP restrictions of any kind. They raise a worthy point; many SNAP recipients reside in areas called “food deserts,” which are residential areas without access to a full-service grocery store. Food deserts affect urban and rural recipients alike, typically being defined as areas more than one mile away from a grocery store for urban residents, and more than ten miles away for rural residents. These areas often contain small corner markets or convenience stores, which carry significantly less fresh food items, and many more pre-packaged, boxed, or canned goods – goods typically categorized as less nutritious than certain items available at full-service grocery stores. Members argue that any restrictions on purchases further limit the food available to recipients.

On the other hand, although they may support the merits of SNAP, some fiscally conservative-minded members oppose taxpayer-funded SNAP benefits from being used to buy “unhealthy” foods and drinks, such as candy, “junk food,” soda, or other sugar-laden beverages. They argue that the ability to use benefits on these types of foods and drinks are increasing the burden on taxpayers through the rising healthcare costs associated with obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses.

It should be expected that some members will bypass the emotional sides of the argument altogether to touch on the more technical side of the issue. What defines “junk food?” What agency would be responsible for categorizing each of the thousands of food items currently available at corner markets, convenience stores, or grocery stores? How would the responsible agency properly keep pace with the tens of thousands of new food items available each year? How would small grocery stores afford to upgrade outdated systems to remain compliant, and what would that “tracking” system entail?

Although the particular issue of SNAP purchasing restrictions did not rise to the congressional hearing level during the 114th Congress, members who served on the committee during the 113th Congress will be familiar with the arguments on both sides. During farm bill debate in 2013, Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) offered a floor amendment that would establish a pilot program in nine states to gather SNAP purchasing data and ultimately require the Comptroller General to determine how to improve SNAP recording. The amendment failed by an overwhelming 79-346 vote. Important to note is that Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) – although not committee chairman at the time – and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) voted against the amendment. However, it remains to be seen if the topic will resurface during the next farm bill, and if so, in what capacity. As with other SNAP issues analyzed during the 114th Congress through congressional hearings, Chairman Conaway will likely use the insights gained during this hearing as he considers proposals for reforming SNAP in the next farm bill.

This Week’s Hearings:

  • On Wednesday, February 15, the House Agriculture Committee has scheduled a hearing titled “Rural Economic Outlook: Setting the State for the Next Farm Bill.” The witnesses will be announced.
  • On Thursday, February 16, the House Agriculture Committee has scheduled a hearing titled “Pros and Cons of Restricting SNAP Purchases.” The witnesses will be announced.