U.S. Senate panel spars over elevated food assistance spending in upcoming farm bill
U.S. Sen. John Boozman (R-Arkansas), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, raises questions about the cost of an update in food assistance programs on Feb. 16, 2023. This photo is from a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee meeting. (Photo courtesy of Boozman press office)
WASHINGTON – Members of the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee split along party lines Thursday as they tussled over financial accountability in farm bill nutrition programs.
The main point of contention was the Department of Agriculture’s 2021 changes to the Thrifty Food Plan, one of four food plans the USDA develops to estimate the cost of a healthy diet.
The Thrifty Food Plan is tied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. The program provides financial and commodity assistance to low-income households.
Members also debated the associated rise in the cost of food aid in the coming decade.
Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, emphasized that the “critical” nutrition programs in the farm bill help people afford groceries, make healthier choices, and support the food economy.
“They lift millions of American families out of poverty,” Stabenow said. “These are our friends, neighbors, and relatives who deserve to be able to put food on the table even when they are going through a hard time.”
But several Republicans balked at the ongoing cost of the 2021 update, which they said was made without congressional approval.
“Our people’s confidence in SNAP is undermined when this administration usurps Congress’ power of the purse, and unilaterally increases the program’s cost by hundreds of billions of dollars without any concern to the fiscal impact, and the impact on inflation,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said.
Federal nutrition assistance programs support 1 in 4 Americans, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. The nutrition title is the largest set of mandatory expenditures in the farm bill, accounting for close to 76% of the baseline budget.
The bulk of the food assistance programs included in the farm bill nutrition title consists of SNAP benefits.
The programs cost $233 billion overall in 2021 and 2022, while serving more than 41 million people nationwide, according to the USDA.
Maximum SNAP benefit allotments are calculated based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan. The Thrifty Food Plan represents the minimum monthly budget for “a nutritious, cost-effective diet” prepared at home for a “reference family” of two adults and two children, according to the USDA.
The USDA’s Food Nutrition and Consumer Services Commission updated the Thrifty Food Plan in 2021, after Congress authorized a reassessment in the 2018 farm bill.
The change brought daily benefits up by roughly $2 per enrollee, marking the first food-price-related benefits hike since 1975. The decision also hiked nutrition spending by roughly $35 billion from fiscal years 2020 to 2021.
Republicans battle with USDA
Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the committee’s ranking member, led a chorus of his fellow Republicans in denouncing the USDA’s update to the Thrifty Food Plan.
Boozman cited a Government Accountability Office report saying that from 2023 to 2031, changes in the plan will add approximately $250 billion in costs, an expense incurred without consultation with Congress.
“I cannot overstate how damaging FNCS’ conduct has been,” Boozman said. “I’m deeply disappointed in its leadership.”
USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Stacy Dean defended the department’s efforts to increase benefit accessibility and spending power amid budget concerns.
Dean noted the department updated the Thrifty Food Plan based on four criteria for the model: inflation, population, dietary guidelines, and food availability. She noted that the update was a “conservative effort” that resulted in a “modest” increase of 40 cents per meal for each enrollee.
“You mentioned the four criteria, cost is not a part of this,” Boozman responded. “You go to the CBO score: Zero. Congressional intent: Zero. The USDA’s help in regards to what was going on: Zero. And yet, you’ve increased it another $250 billion without any congressional interaction whatsoever.”
Grassley also noted the Congressional Budget Office projects the update would result in $1.2 trillion in spending over the next decade.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, asked if the Congressional Budget Office signed off on the update to the Thrifty Food Plan.
“I don’t know if ‘signed off’ is a technical term,” Dean replied. “But absolutely, we were collaborating with them throughout the process.”
Democrats advocate for SNAP access
Stabenow said that SNAP assistance is one of the most effective tools Congress has to stimulate the economy, and that the Thrifty Food Plan update will help lift 2.4 million Americans out of poverty.
Stabenow said that when the Biden administration took on the update in 2021, it had been left incomplete for three years under the Trump administration.
“The reality is that we put in place a policy to do a thorough update that hadn’t been done since 1975,” Stabenow said.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said that SNAP benefits prior to the pandemic were never sufficient to cover household food expenses, and adjustments made during the crisis were necessary to ensure access to food security.
“The increases in SNAP benefits from 2021 through the Thrifty Food Plan update were long overdue,” Gillibrand said. “Let’s make the case that these changes are important for this committee to look at holistically, not just an example as to what we used to spend, and what we’re spending today.”
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