Food stamp advocates clash over healthy spending and work rules

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Food aid advocates, weeks before a White House summit on nationwide hunger reduction, are divided on how and whether to restrict access to the biggest aid package government nutrition.

The standoff was exposed on Tuesday as an independent task force weighed in on How? ‘Or’ What improving Americans’ diets through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which affects approximately 40 million people. Hot spots in the debate over SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, include whether to restrict recipients and the foods they can buy.

“People are starving from eating terrible foods — they are starving,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts’ nutrition department and co-chair of the Hunger, Nutrition and Health Task Force.

White House conference slated for next month sets ambitious goal to end hunger, increase healthy eating and get more Americans to exercise by 2030. Ordered by Congress in a bill of credits (Public law 117-103), it aims to stem a steady rise in diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity, which now affect more than 40% of American adults. The Biden administration has yet to release its own recommendations on food programs.

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A sign warns customers of the benefits of SNAP food stamps at a grocery store on December 5, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York.

Nutrition programs like SNAP were largely shaped by the first White House Hunger Conference in 1969. There hasn’t been another such summit in five decades, and next month’s meeting motivates different thematic groups to compete for their 21st century priorities.

The task force report agreed to use federal nutrition programs like SNAP and school lunches to promote healthier eating. But members — including researchers, advocates and former government officials — disagreed on how difficult it is to support those goals.

food deserts

The ubiquity of highly processed, low-cost foods has led policymakers to float the idea of ​​restricting items that SNAP dollars can be used to purchase, such as sugary drinks that lack nutritional benefits. Proponents of additional restrictions said state-level pilot programs to test the idea, along with incentives to buy healthier foods, could help reduce diet-related illnesses associated with sugary drinks.

Others say tightening restrictions for low-income Americans, many of whom live in food deserts with limited options, would only add stress and stigma to the program.

Read more: Lingering ‘food deserts’ spark calls for more federal aid

Having a low income is associated with higher rates of obesity and other nutrition-related problems, to research shows. But the federal government can’t solve the nutritional problems of low-income Americans by “controlling what people struggling with poverty can access,” said Vince Hall, government relations manager for Feeding America. “It would violate the sovereignty, the dignity, the autonomy of people struggling with food insecurity.”

Instead, many who oppose adding SNAP restrictions say increasing the amount of benefits would give low-income Americans what they need to buy healthier, fresher foods instead. processed options that are easier on their wallet. The task force agreed that SNAP levels should be assessed every five years and adjusted for inflation to ensure recipients have what they need to afford healthy food.

Read more: Roast Chicken With Food Stamps? Lift ban, lawmakers say

Rules of employment, immigrant access

Work requirements to receive SNAP benefits also divided the task force, with some members saying they create unnecessary tension – and others saying they are suitable for adults without children or disabilities.

The requirement that childless adults who are not disabled must be employed or in vocational training to receive food stamps was lifted at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Congressional Republicans want to revive work requirements, saying the job market has rebounded and beneficiaries should now be able to comply.

“These work requirements were established on a bipartisan basis. They were removed for the COVID emergency on a bipartisan basis. They should be reinstated with bipartisan support,” the senator said. John Boozman (R-Ark.), the senior member of the Agriculture Committee, said in a statement earlier this month.

But some members of the working group suggested that the exemptions should be made permanent.

“They pointed out that job loss occurs when SNAP is particularly needed and argued that the work requirement creates undue pressure on groups such as low-income students and some rural and tribal residents who live in areas where employment opportunities are limited,” the report said.

Earlier: Immigrant youth seek access to health care as wider threats loom

Members were also divided on whether to allow undocumented immigrants to receive SNAP benefits. Under current policies, immigrants must have five years of lawful permanent residence to be eligible.

The working group agreed on expanding SNAP eligibility and removing some administrative hurdles. Recommendations included simplifying applications for adults 60 and older and making it easier for soldiers on active duty to get food stamps, to reduce the rate of military hunger.

Barriers to obtaining nutritional assistance, especially for older people, have long been a focus of hunger advocates. “If you’re 75 and living on disability benefits, you’re not going to get a sudden windfall,” said Abby Leibman, president of MAZON: A Jewish Answer to Hunger. Older people shouldn’t have to check their eligibility as often as younger people, she added.

Read more: US troops are hungry at higher than average rates, survey finds (2)

Competing voices

The White House will have to juggle competing priorities at its September rally.

“If hunger advocates and nutrition advocates are fighting each other, instead of realizing they are on the same team, it could hamper the success of the conference,” said the working group co-chair, Mozaffarian.

Lobbyists and anti-hunger groups also say they have yet to receive an agenda or date for the conference, beyond the fact that it is in September, casting doubt on to the effectiveness of the meeting.

The White House and Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment on conference details.

“We really don’t know what’s going to be offered or discussed, other than publicly available information on their website, really,” said Meredith Whitmire, vice president of Matz, Blancato & Associates, a consulting firm for organizations focused on health, aging, and food.

Still, others draw their optimism from the success of the 1969 conference and the proximity of that summit to work on next year’s Farm Bill, in which Congress will reauthorize federal nutrition programs like SNAP. The current Farm Bill is due to expire on September 30, 2023.

Bob Blancato, chairman of the consultancy and former organizer of the 1995 White House Conference on Aging, was confident the event would come together. Since Congress authorized the summit, it expects lawmakers to be eager to implement any resulting recommendations.

“You also realize that you have the very important farm bill that will encompass many nutrition issues that are due in Congress in 2023, and some of the work is already happening in that space now,” he said. said in an interview. “So I think there’s reason to be optimistic.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeva Sheehey in washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at [email protected]; Anna Yukhananov at [email protected]

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