by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: SNAP

May 22 2024

Digging into Farm Bill proposals: Is public health possible?

Deeply buried in the 942 pages (I’m not kidding) of the House version of the Farm Bill is this item in the Nutrition title.


Subtitle A—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]


Congress recognizes the supplemental nutrition assistance program allows low-income households to obtain supplemental food for an active, healthy life. Such assistance should also be designed to prevent—

(1) diet-caused chronic disease, including—
(A) obesity;
(B) diabetes;
(C) hypertension;
(D) heart disease; and
(E) cancer;
(2) disability;
(3) premature death;
(4) unsustainable health care costs; and
(5) undermining of military readiness.

Accordingly, it is also the policy of the Congress that the Secretary should administer the supplemental nutrition assistance program in a manner that will provide participants, especially children, access to foods essential to optimal health and well-being.

Comment: I can’t think of a better statement of the need for policies to address chronic disease risks in the population.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  It’s thrilling, and deserves wildly enthusiastic support from the public health community.

It is not getting it.  On the contrary.

This is disappointing, but we are talking here about the Farm Bill (see my Politico explanation,  “The farm bill drove me insane).

To oversimplify: The Farm Bill is a shotgun marriage between Big Ag (Republicans) and SNAP (Democrats).

If Republicans want to support Big Ag, they have to vote for SNAP.   If Democrats want to support SNAP, they have to vote for farm supports.  This requires extreme compromise and nose-holding.

So why is the public health nutrition community opposed to a bill that includes such a strong statement of public health policy?

For this, see another item buried in the Nutrition title.

Subtitle D—Other Miscellaneous Provisions

‘Thrifty food plan’ means the diet required to feed a family of 4 persons …based on relevant market baskets that shall only be changed pursuant to paragraph (3)….

(3) REEVALUATION OF MARKET BASKETS…(C) COST NEUTRALITY.—The Secretary shall not increase the cost of the thrifty food plan based on a reevaluation or update under this paragraph.

Translation: The Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for setting the benefit level for SNAP, cannot be increased.  The hunger advocacy community estimates that because of inflation, this will decrease SNAP benefits by $30 billion over the next years.

For the nutrition advocacy community, this is the line in the sand. With this clause in the proposed bill, they have to oppose the whole thing.

Neither of these clauses is in the Senate version.

My proposal: Put section 4101 in the final bill and eliminate 12401.

Hey, I can dream…

[Thanks to Jerry Mande of Nourish Science for keeping me up on Farm Bill progress]

May 7 2024

The latest on the forthcoming (eventually) farm bill

Every five years or so, we have to deal with another farm bill.  Like the dietary guidelines, also every five years, the farm bill doesn’t really change much.  The arguments about both don’t change either.  So here we go again.

And just so you know where i”m coming from on this, here are my classic thoughts on the matter:  “The farm bill drove me insane.

A quick summary of why it does: it’s a collection of dozens if not hundreds, of programs, each with its own constituency and lobbyists, and too complicated for outsiders (like me) to understand.  The elephant in the farm bill is SNAP, which takes up 80% or so of the funding and accounts for most of the fights.  What SNAP is doing there is a long story, but don’t even think about removing it; take it out and neither food assistance nor farm supports would have enough votes to pass.

On May 1, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee introduced her version of  this year’s delayed farm bill: The Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act.

A full summary of the bill is here. (Note: it’s vague on details)

A section-by-section is here. (Note: it’s 94 pages)

Title summaries

The House Committee’s counter-proposal is available here.

It’s too early for me to get into the weeds on this.

On SNAP (the Nutrition title), some advocates will be pushing for making it healthier as well as increasing benefits.

On farm supports (Certainty for All Farmers title, and others), advocates for animal rights, young farmers, and Black farmers will want more than they have received in the past.  Most of what’s in the farm bill goes to support feed for animals and fuel for automobiles.

On “specialty crops,” (translation: food for people)  in the Horticulture title, I was amused to see a $100 million increase per year, which sounds like a lot but is barely a rounding error in a bill costing $100 billion or more a year.

The farm bill ought to be an opportunity to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy and to focus on producing food healthy for people and the planet.

Well, the details are still to come, and reconciliation of the two versions is still a long way off .  Stay tuned.

Feb 21 2024

Mac & Cheese sales down: blame SNAP

Every now and then a headline makes me gasp:

Deena Shankar’s article in Bloomberg News begins:

It’s been just about a year since the US government slashed additional pandemic-related food-stamp benefits, and some of the companies that make and sell food are seeing that hit their sales.

As she explains,

Enhanced benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, ended last February, meaning families and individuals saw monthly cuts of $95 to $250 or more in what they received. Families with kids lost at the high end of the spectrum, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.

Never mind the effects of reduced benefits on low-income families.

packaged-food giant Kraft Heinz Co. cited the reduction in benefits as a major headwind that the company and the industry faced in 2023. “We saw some challenges in our mac-and-cheese business,” Chief Executive Officer Carlos Abrams-Rivera said on an earnings call. “Frankly, it’s a business that is driven disproportionately by our SNAP exposure.”

How’s that for a gasp-inducing statement.  SNAP recipients are the core customers for this product.

If you want to know about inequities in the US food system, start here.

Kraft Mac & Cheese exemplifies cheap ultra-processed food.

Walmart sells five boxes for $4.88, less than a dollar a box.

For that, you are supposed to get three servings per box, but the whole box adds up to:

  • 750 calories
  • 1680 mg sodium,(4.2 grams of salt)
  • 27 grams sugars

And what’s in this?


Walmart sells a pound of carrots for $1.38.

There is something seriously wrong with a food system that makes a 750-calorie Mac and Cheese product so much cheaper than a pound of carrots.

Jun 6 2023

The Debt Limit bill: a national tragedy

Is anyone else as upset as I am about the Debt Limit bill just passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President?

Senator Bernie Sanders, maybe.  Here’s why he voted against it.

Yes, the bill:

  • Averted a default on the debt which everyone agrees would have been catastrophic (but the crisis should have been prevented in the first place)
  • Will probably not cut SNAP benefits by much if at all (if you believe the Congressional Budget Office)
  • Could have been a lot worse (a very low bar)
  • Is considered a big win by the White House (oh dear)

But, and it’s a big but:

  • It proved that bullying works.

The bullies know it, and are exulting.

The Farm Bill is next.  Watch what the bullies do to it.

What ever happened to government of the people, by the people, for the people?

Existential angst, anyone?  I’ve got plenty.

Apr 18 2023

A warning: COVID benefits are ending and their loss will hurt

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service sent out one of the saddest emailed notices I have ever received, announcing the end of relief measures enacted during the COVID-19 emergency.

The FNS says it is working closely with participants, States, retailers, other federal agencies, and the White House to help with the transition.

This will not be easy.  The COVID-induced increases in benefits did much to reduce family and child poverty as well as food insecurity.

What follows is slightly edited, mainly to reduce repetitive statements.

End of the National COVID-19 Public Health Emergency – Impact on FNS Programs. 

The national public health emergency (PHE) put in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to expire on May 11, 2023. The end of the public health emergency…will trigger changes that impact low-income individuals and families.

  • SNAP Emergency Allotments: The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, required that pandemic-related SNAP Emergency Allotments (EA) be terminated after the issuance of February 2023 benefits.  See: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • SNAP ABAWD Time Limit: Beginning July 1, 2023, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) participating in SNAP will once again be required to meet the ABAWD work requirements or could risk losing benefits as soon as October 2023.
  • Temporary Student Exemptions:  Beginning July 1, 2023, the temporary student exemptions – which allowed college students who wouldn’t typically be eligible for SNAP to receive benefits during the public health emergency – will begin to be phased out, impacting students as they are due for recertification.
  • SNAP Administrative Adjustments and Waivers:  FNS is working very closely with States to help them successfully transition back to normal operations, including offering four certification-related waivers specifically designed to support the transition to post-pandemic program operations.
  • Child Nutrition Programs: FNS offered States and child nutrition program operators extensive flexibilities during COVID to ensure they could continue to serve kids the nutrition they needed. Two of the flexibilities currently offered – CACFP benefits for young adults in shelters and offsite monitoring – are tied to the PHE and, therefore, will be coming to an end. See: Child Nutrition Programs
  • Pandemic EBT: Since March 2020, Pandemic EBT, also known as P-EBT, has been helping eligible families cover food costs for kids who typically received free and reduced-priced school meals or were eligible through their child care facilities. These benefits will continue through the end of summer 2023 for school children, but will end when the PHE ends on May 11, 2023, for children in child care. The new nationwide Summer EBT program recently passed into law will be available starting in summer 2024, and will help families in need continue to put food on the table during the summer when children aren’t receiving meals in schools. See: Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT)  
  • WIC: After the end of the public health emergency, most of the flexibilities FNS provided to WIC participants during the pandemic will continue to be available under a separate authority Congress provided FNS in the American Rescue Plan Act. With this authority, WIC state agencies can continue to offer – and build and improve upon – remote services after the PHE ends. Infant formula waivers, which are not tied to the PHE, will be phased out on a different timeline through the end of June 2023.  See:  Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

Additional information is available on the FNS website, here.

Comment: I consider this a national tragedy, and a huge mistake.  If COVID-19 proved anything, it was that these measures were highly effective in reducing child poverty in the United States.  Now what.  We go back to higher levels?  As I said, a national tragedy.

Congress will have much to answer for when the results of this shameful decision become to be apparent.

Feb 21 2023

Where are we on SNAP? In play, as always.

Here’s what’s going on.

SNAP costs are high

Even with the reduction, this is an expensive program and it’s no surprise that Republicans want to cut it.

SNAP is under constant criticism and not only because of cost.  Advocates want it to do a better job of promoting nutrition and health, as shown in two recent reports.

Advocacy Report #1.  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as a health intervention (by Jerry Mande and Grace Flaherty)

After reviewing the evidence on SNAP’s impacts on food insecurity, dietary quality, and health as well as research on the health impacts of other more successful federal food assistance programs, we provide three policy recommendations to strengthen SNAP’s effectiveness as a health intervention for children and families.

These are:

  • Make diet quality a core SNAP objective.
  • Srengthen requirements for SNAP-authorized retailers to promote healthier retail food environments.
  • Pair incentives for purchasing fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods with restrictions on unhealthy foods and sweetened 2beverages.

Advocacy Report #2.  Making Food and Nutrition Security a SNAP: Recommendations for the 2023 Farm Bill (from the  Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force.

Some of its major recommendations:

  • Make sure benefit levels are adequate to achieve healthy diets.
  • Make sure eligibility and work requirements do not preent undue barriers to participation.
  • Encourage consumption of nutritious foods through existing and demonstration projects.

If I read this right, “demonstration projects” is a euphemism for not permitting sugar-sweetened beverages to be purchased with SNAP benefits.

Who knows how all this will play out.  I’ve just read the manuscript of a history of SNAP arguing that SNAP is bullet-proof because it solves a major societal problem and because it is inextricably linked to agricultural supports in the Farm Bill.  Look for the book when it comes out (I will certainly post it as a Weekend Reading):  Christopher Bosso.  Why SNAP Works: A Political History—and Defense—of the Food Stamp Program.  University of California Press,  2023.
And my contribution to this particular cause is here.


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Dec 21 2022

The latest food politics target: The Thrifty Food Plan

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report complaining about the Biden administration’s update of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP).

The Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) describes how much it costs to eat a healthy diet on a limited budget, and is the basis for maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reevaluated the Thrifty Food Plan and made decisions that resulted in increased costs and risks for the reevaluated TFP. Specifically, the agency (1) allowed the cost of the TFP—and thus SNAP benefits—to increase beyond inflation for the first time in 45 years, and (2) accelerated the timeline of the reevaluation by 6 months in order to respond to the COVID-19 emergency. The reevaluation resulted in a 21 percent increase in the cost of the TFP and the maximum SNAP benefit.

The complaint, done at the request of Republican members of the House and Senate, says that “USDA began the reevaluation without three key project management elements in place.”

First, without a charter, USDA missed an opportunity to identify ways to measure project success and to set clear expectations for stakeholders.

Second, USDA developed a project schedule but not a comprehensive project management plan that included certain elements, such as a plan for ensuring quality throughout the process.

Third, the agency did not employ a dedicated project manager to ensure that key practices in project management were generally followed.

USDA gathered external input, but given time constraints, did not fully incorporate this input in its reevaluation.

The GAO agreed, titled its report,  Thrifty Food Plan: Better planning and accountability could help ensure quality of future reevaluations, and said ” GAO found that key decisions did not fully meet standards for economic analysis, primarily due to failure to fully disclose the rationale for decisions, insufficient analysis of the effects of decisions, and lack of documentation.

Comment: The Thrifty Food Plan is the lowest cost of four plans (the other three are the Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal Food Plans) developed by USDA to set standards for a nutritious diet.

These were developed by the USDA in the 1930s to provide “consumers with practical and economic advice on healthful eating.”  The latest figures for a family of four say that the monthly cost of these plans averages about $683, $902, $1121, and $1,362, respectively.

In 2018, the Farm Bill instructed the USDA to re-evaluate the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022 and every five years thereafter.  The most recent revisions was in 2006.

The Thrifty Food Plan has obvious weaknesses:

  • It is based on unrealistic amounts and kinds of foods.
  • The food list is not consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • It assumes adequate transportation, equipment, time for food preparation.
  • It assumes adequate availability and affordability of the listed foods.
  • It costs more than SNAP benefits.

The Plan was long overdue for an update.  The complaints about process are a cover for the real issue: Republican opposition to raising SNAP costs.

No question, SNAP costs have gone up, and by a lot, in billions.

  • 2019  $55.6
  • 2020  $74.1
  • 2021  $108.5
  • 2022  $114.5

Food insecurity has decreased accordingly.  And that, after all, is the point.


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Dec 6 2022

Once again, a Farm Bill is in the works

Everyfive years or so, Congress gets to work on a new Farm Bill.  This is a big job.

I’ve written about the Farm Bill previously.  See, for example, my opinion piece in Politico: “The Farm Bill drove me insane.”

Here are two recent publications to get you started.

The Congressional Research Service has a handy guide with summaries of its full collection of primers for the a 2018 bill.

There are 23 primers summarized in this report and organized under descriptive headings rather than by farm bill titles to facilitate accessibility for those who are not familiar with the 2018 farm bill. The concept behind these primers is to provide relevant information on key programs and policy initiatives authorized by the 2018 farm bill in a concise format that serves as a quick-reference resource for Members of Congress and congressional staff. To this end, the primers describe many of the leading programs and policies within the 2018 farm bill. They also identify some of the higher-profile policy issues that may arise as Congress engages in the process of writing a new farm bill and highlight some policy options that Congress could consider as it undertakes this task. The titles of the primers are hyperlinked for easy access.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a statement of principles for congressional reform of the bill.

US food and agriculture policies are in need of reform. Some of the country’s largest agricultural operations receive unlimited subsidies while beginning farmers struggle to afford land. Crop prices recently rose to record highs, but challenging input costs – for everything from fuel to fertilizer – are eating away at profits. Food supply and inflation challenges continue to make headlines. Meanwhile, children go to bed hungry while one-third of food is wasted.

Comment: Here’s one reason why:

Reforming the Farm Bill is badly needed but won’t be easy for reasons of history and politics.  Getting it passed is expected to be exceptionally difficult for the same reasons.  80% or so of its spending is for SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The rest goes largely to producers of feed for animals and fuel for automobiles.  How’s that for vested interests!


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