Senators Push Back on USDA SNAP Costs

Hoeven, Boozman: Congress May Consider Changing Thrifty Food Plan Process

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
Stacy Dean, left, Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, and Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long testify at a Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill hearing on nutrition programs on Thursday. In foreground is Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt. (Image from Senate Agriculture Committee video)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Congress may consider changing the way that the Agriculture Department conducts future reevaluations of the Thrifty Food Plan that led to a 21% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in 2021, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Thursday. A spokesman for Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member on the committee, said Boozman would consider the idea.

At a Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill hearing on federal nutrition programs, Boozman and several other Republican senators complained to Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Stacy Dean about the way USDA had undertaken the reevaluation and the subsequent benefit increase and budget implications of that action, but Hoeven was the only one to mention a possible change in policy.

Dean defended the process even though the Government Accountability Office had said the process should have included federal rulemaking.

Near the end of the hearing, she told Hoeven that the 2018 farm bill had directed the Agriculture secretary to reevaluate by 2022 the Thrifty Food Plan, which was used to determine SNAP benefits, and to conduct the reevaluation every five years thereafter.

In her written testimony, Dean had said, "The reevaluation was a scientific and data-driven approach that concluded that the cost of a nutritious, practical, budget-conscious diet is 21% higher than the previous TFP."

"That resulted in the first permanent increase to the purchasing power of SNAP benefits since the TFP was first introduced in 1975, reflecting notable shifts in the food marketplace and consumers' circumstances over the past 45 years."

Asked by Hoeven whether USDA would come back and consult with Congress on future reevaluations or "do it unilaterally," Dean replied, "We learned a lot about the process and how to do it best this go-round."

"We will pursue continuous improvement and are eager to consult with you," Dean said, but she did not provide any details on what that consultation would mean.

Hoeven said, "I would think that would be something Congress would want to consider in the next farm bill in terms of how that process is performed going forward."

Boozman did not speak directly to Hoeven's statement, but a spokesman said, "Ranking member Boozman is extremely frustrated with how USDA conducted the reevaluation."

"The GAO investigation he requested with (now House Agriculture) Chairman (Glenn) Thompson (R-Pa.) detailed the steps that USDA purposefully skipped to engineer an intended outcome," the spokesman said.

"Separately, GAO determined that USDA failed to submit the Thrifty Food Plan food basket increase to Congress as a rule as required by the Congressional Review Act, a point he tried to drive home during the questioning round. He will certainly be considering ways to prevent the department from conducting future reevaluations in that manner."

At the end of the hearing, Boozman noted that the Congressional Budget Office had scored the Thrifty Food Plan reevaluation as zero cost before Congress passed the 2018 farm bill.

He quizzed Cindy Long, a civil servant who is the administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, about USDA's involvement in the farm bill decision-making that led CBO to score the directive at zero.

Long said she did not work on SNAP in 2018, but Boozman said, "How can we trust you going forward to give us good advice?"

Boozman added that the high level of spending on SNAP will make it difficult to make improvements to farm programs, "which I desperately want to do."

Dean said that the Office of Management and Budget had advised USDA on the Thrifty Food Plan reevaluation but could not say whether OMB had formally "signed off" on the reevaluation and SNAP benefit increase, leading Boozman to say OMB's position was unclear.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who has said she is unwilling to reduce nutrition programs, said that "whether commodity programs go up and down or SNAP goes up or down, those programs are totally separate" -- a signal that she does not intend to allow SNAP budget savings to boost farm programs.

Stabenow added that even though she had been "deeply involved in writing that farm bill," she did not know why CBO scored the provision the way it did. But she emphasized that the 2018 farm bill "required" USDA to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan.

"I know we are going to have important discussions about all of this," Stabenow said as she ended the hearing.

Earlier in the hearing, Dean, a former analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former Office of Management and Budget official, told Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., that too much is expected of the nutrition programs.

Dean said that SNAP is supposed to be a supplement to family food spending, but that the cost of childcare, health insurance that is out of reach, states' decisions not to expand Medicaid, and the end of child tax credit mean that families must use money for purposes other than buying food.

Amid concern from Republicans about able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) getting benefits and other beneficiaries not complying with work requirements, Dean also noted that when the federal COVID-19 pandemic officially ends on May 11, the previous rules will be reinstated.

She also noted that Hennepin County, Minnesota, has a "phenomenal" program that trains young people for jobs while receiving SNAP benefits.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she remains concerned that so many young people are not qualified for the military because they are obese and urged Dean to fully utilize the Healthy Milk Incentives Program.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., had an aide bring him a container of milk, and before drinking it called milk "the greatest drink known to humankind."

Marshall said the schools should be allowed to serve whole milk, and that skim milk doesn't have the same taste. He said he is worried that the next generation will suffer from osteoporosis from not drinking whole milk.

"Chocolate milk is better than no milk, but the whole milk is the key," Marshall said.

Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith, R-Miss., asked Dean what USDA could do about coastal, urban school districts that serve meals free of animal protein, but Dean said USDA rules give local schools a lot of leeway in what they serve.

Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said that the ban on ex-offenders getting SNAP benefits should be changed because it leads to hunger and recidivism, and Dean said the Biden administration agrees with that position.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked whether states should be able to distribute SNAP benefits twice a month, but Dean noted that Congress had prohibited the states from making that change because there were concerns that distributing benefits twice a month would mean that SNAP beneficiaries, particularly in rural areas, would need to travel more often to go grocery shopping. Perhaps the decision could be left up to individual households, Dean said.

After Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Vermont farmers are proud of their role in feeding the American people, Dean said SNAP means "more money at the grocery store, which is more money in the food economy back to Vermont farmers."

As the hearing was going on in the Senate, the Washington Post reported, "Top House Republicans are exploring significant changes to the nation's food stamps program, including benefit cuts and stricter work requirements, as some in the new majority scramble for ways to slash government spending this year."

Yet Reuters also reported Thursday that low-income Americans will receive, on average, about $82 a month less in SNAP benefits starting in March. The average SNAP benefit will average about $157 a month. SNAP aid will decline because a pandemic-driven boost in SNAP benefits will end, Reuters reported.

-- Senate Agriculture Committee: Farm Bill 2023: Nutrition Programs (hearing video)…

-- USDA Food and Nutrition Service: SNAP and the Thrifty Food Plan:…

-- Washington Post article:…

-- Reuters article:…

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Jerry Hagstrom