The US Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing on federal nutrition programs on Thursday as it began consideration of U.S. agricultural programs in legislation commonly called “the farm bill.”
The last farm bill, which Congress enacted in 2018, is up for reauthorization in 2023.
Along with federal laws governing commodities, the farm bill covers nutrition assistance programs such as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Puerto Rico’s smaller Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) block grant program, emergency food supply programs, and programs for low-income seniors.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) opened the hearing by reporting that SNAP helps more than 40 million Americans feed their families, reduces food insecurity, and provides benefits to more than one million veterans. She shared research showing that SNAP participants are healthier than people who are eligible but do not participate in the program, and that children who participate see better educational outcomes and better participation in the workforce as adults.
Stabenow also explained that every dollar invested in SNAP increases the GDP by $1.50, making it “the fastest way to stimulate the economy during downturns.” The expansion of the funding for SNAP during the pandemic lifted millions of Americans — chiefly children — out of poverty.
Ranking Member Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) responded by reminding the committee that the nutrition title of the farm bill is by far the costliest title. He drew attention to CBO baseline projections that show that the measure’s nutrition programs alone will cost more than $1.2 trillion over ten years. The planned spending, he said, doubled the cost of the program. He spoke in favor of work requirements for SNAP recipients. “SNAP is intended to supplement a beneficiary’s monthly grocery budget” he said, pointing out that jobs are readily available now. “SNAP is a valuable program, but should lead to self-reliance, not generational dependence.”
NAP, SNAP, and Puerto Rico
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) used her limited time to speak about the problems with NAP, Puerto Rico’s limited block grant nutrition assistance program. “I’d like to ask a question for the record about moving Puerto Rico from NAP to SNAP,” she continued, “because it is so unfair that the Americans who happen to live in Puerto Rico don’t get the full SNAP benefit.”
She asked Stacy Dean, Under Secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, for a letter to the Committee with a “full answer” on “what’s happening in Puerto Rico today” with respect to nutrition assistance.
Noting the block grant’s cap, which denies access to Americans in need, the Senator pointed out that “even as more people are added to the program, there’s no more money to feed more kids.” In states, funding for the SNAP program is based on the needs of the people in the state. In Puerto Rico, there is a limited block grant, even if need among the residents expands such as in the aftermath of a hurricane.
Sen. Gillibrand specifically asked for the USDA’s analysis in writing on “who has access to (NAP), who does not have access to it, the destructive impact of NAP, and why it should be moved to SNAP.” Deputy Under Secretary Dean began to explain that the USDA supports all the territories having access to SNAP, and Sen. Gillibrand explained that she understands the USDA’s position but that she needs this in writing for her colleagues, who don’t represent as many Puerto Ricans as she does.
Representing Puerto Ricans
Sen. Gillibrand’s constituents include many people of Puerto Rican heritage. The Island has no senators at all, so senators like Gillibrand must support Puerto Rico and help to educate other senators who are less aware of the needs of the territory.