Web Exclusive

Farm Bill Proposes Potential Changes to SNAP Program
By Emily Senesac

Dietitians have been buzzing over Washington's drafting of the new Farm Bill. This legislative package has a monumental impact on more than just farms; ultimately, it affects the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the fuels we use. Roughly every five years, the Farm Bill expires and must be updated and passed by Congress, a process that sets the tone for a variety of programs within the USDA, ranging from trade and farm subsidies to nutrition support.

Out of all the programs that fall under the wide umbrella of the Farm Bill, those that cater to nutrition are perhaps the most hotly contested and controversial under consideration. Specifically, programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as the food stamps program—are up for debate. Lawmakers will have to decide whether to impose stricter requirements on these types of programs, now that both chambers of Congress have passed versions of the 2018 Farm Bill, each with a different approach to nutrition programs such as SNAP.

Following a tour of farms and agricultural centers across the nation, the USDA created a set of principles to share with Congress as it determines the components of the latest Farm Bill. Among the principles listed, the USDA noted its support for legislation that would "support work as the pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility for individuals and families receiving supplemental nutrition assistance," in addition to legislation that would "strengthen the integrity and efficiency of food and nutrition programs to better serve our participants and protect American taxpayers by reducing waste, fraud, and abuse through shared data, innovation, and technology modernization."

By sharing these goals with Congress for consideration, the USDA stands "ready to provide counsel" to lawmakers on issues with nutrition assistance programs as they draft this legislation.

SNAP helps low-income Americans afford a simple diet for themselves and their families by providing food for seniors, children, disabled individuals, veterans, and others. With this immediate goal in mind, SNAP also has a significant long-term impact—alleviating poverty, combating food insecurity, and contributing to positive physical and mental health benefits for the almost 40 million recipients of SNAP provisions.

"For many low-income families, SNAP is the last line of defense," according to Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry Campaign, per QUARTZ news.

The version of the Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives in late June would, if signed into law, require major reconstruction and remodeling of SNAP. Through the imposition of stricter work requirements and the tightening of eligibility criteria to qualify for SNAP, these changes proposed by the House would affect between 5 million and 7 million recipients of SNAP benefits, causing a majority of them to lose their aid entirely. In addition, thousands of children would lose access to free meals at school, which are currently provided by SNAP.

While these adjustments may seem drastic, some members of the House view them as a way to end the dependency of recipients while reducing spending. "We believe that breaking this poverty cycle is really important," according to House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, per CNN.

In addition to disrupting the cycle of poverty, these changes would drastically reduce the cost of the Farm Bill, as almost 80% of the bill's annual budget is dedicated to the SNAP program. 

On the other hand, the Senate version, in the interest of garnering bipartisan support for the bill, doesn't require new SNAP restrictions. Furthermore, many senators don't believe there's a need to impose such restrictions at this time. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says that as the economy continues to get better, SNAP spending is expected to decrease naturally as able-bodied SNAP recipients begin to return to work—enrollment for the program is already on the decline for this very reason.

Clancy Cash Harrison, MS, RDN, FAND, founder of Ignite, a strategic consulting program for organizations that want to strengthen health outcomes, believes that adding harsher restrictions to programs such as SNAP will push more Americans into poverty and food insecurity, harming the health of millions of people. "Seven years ago, I believed many people took advantage of food assistance programs such as SNAP. Once I became the president of a large food pantry, I began to understand the real face of hunger—the working poor," she says.

Harrison noticed that many people who qualify for these programs don't receive the support they need due to the stigma associated with poverty and hunger. She notes, "Adding more restrictions to a process that already emits the feeling of shame will decrease participation."

With the existing Farm Bill set to expire at the end of September, the two chambers of Congress are expected to begin conferencing on the new version in the coming weeks. In these meetings, lawmakers will attempt to hash out the major differences between both versions of the legislation, and will create a comprehensive Farm Bill that will—ideally—have a positive effect on millions of Americans.

— Emily Senesac is an editorial intern at Great Valley Publishing Company in Spring City, Pennsylvania.