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The Republicans’ Plan for Anti-Hunger Programs Could Leave Some Needy Families Behind

Beneficiaries of SNAP and WIC might end up getting caught in the crossfire of a proposed funding deal.

Bill Clark/Getty Images
GOP Representative Andy Harris

As members of Congress once again struggle to avert a government shutdown ahead of a looming funding deadline, millions of low-income mothers and children are in danger of losing access to key benefits.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, colloquially known as WIC, is facing a significant funding shortfall. Unless Congress authorizes an additional $1 billion for the program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has warned, millions of WIC recipients across the country may lose their benefits and be pushed onto waiting lists.

Although funding for WIC has been authorized by lawmakers on a bipartisan basis for decades, House Republicans are now floating a plan to boost WIC in exchange for changes to another program aimed at helping low-income families. With funding for the Agriculture Department set to run out on March 1, barring congressional action, the question of funding these benefits is ever more dire and immediate. (On Wednesday, congressional leaders announced a deal to extend funding for USDA and other agencies through March 8, and for remaining departments through March 22, although this measure must still be approved by Congress.)

Representative Andy Harris, the Republican chair of the subcommittee responsible for writing that agriculture appropriations bill, is supportive of approving funding for WIC in exchange for changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps—commonly known as SNAP. This potential tradeoff, first reported by Politico earlier this month, may not end up funding WIC at the levels requested by the Biden administration and supported by Democrats.

Harris is a proponent of a $2 million voluntary pilot program that would limit the kinds of foods SNAP participants can purchase in five states. This rider was included in a previous version of the agriculture appropriations legislation, which was unable to pass in the House last year due to controversial abortion-related provisions.

“It’s no secret Dr. Harris would like to see the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program returned to what it was originally authorized in Congress to do, which is to ‘safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households,’” said Anna Adamian, Harris’s spokesperson, adding that “negotiations on a final Ag Appropriations bill are still ongoing.”

The pilot program would require SNAP benefits to be used only to purchase “nutrient dense” foods in accordance with dietary guidelines—which would exclude items like candy, soda, and many processed foods. Items that kids love, like chicken nuggets, would be off the table, as would some other kid-friendly foods with higher sugar content, such as certain cereals, peanut butters, and even bread.

This proposal has been widely condemned by anti-hunger and child nutrition advocates, as well as many in the food industry. Georgia Machell, the interim president and CEO of the National WIC Association, said in a statement that “unnecessary and harmful political riders risk undermining funding the success of a program that has enjoyed decades of overwhelming bipartisan support.”

Making SNAP requirements more stringent would also place the burden on grocery stores to regulate what participants are buying. “We think of this provision as a Trojan horse,” said Stephanie Johnson, the vice president for government relations at the National Grocers Association, which represents independent community grocers and wholesalers. Implementing these pilot programs in five states would not necessarily prevent SNAP participants from obtaining the food items they want, she argued—it would just send them over state lines, where they are not subject to such restrictions.

“What we don’t want to see is all of our border grocers in these pilot states go out of business,” said Johnson. “We think that it will do irreparable harm to our members, in addition to being a huge burden to implement.”

Indeed, imposing new restrictions on what could be purchased with SNAP would make the program more like WIC. There are already relatively stringent guidelines for what can and cannot be purchased using WIC; for example, a WIC participant may purchase yogurts with a certain amount of sugar content but cannot buy yogurts that have mix-in ingredients or drinkable yogurts.

Johnson said that, given its complicated requirements, administering WIC is a “labor of love” for many independent grocery stores. But there are far fewer WIC recipients as compared to SNAP recipients—roughly six million participating in WIC versus 40 million participating in SNAP—and therefore, fewer WIC retailers than SNAP retailers. These changes to SNAP would require more grocery stores to fall in line with these regulations.

“We just want to make sure that our members don’t turn into the food police,” Johnson said.

The looming funding deadline makes the argument over WIC and SNAP more urgent. The USDA has planned to provide SNAP benefits through the month of March even if there is a government shutdown, but the long-term effects could be more dire. Moreover, many states may soon run out of the funding they need to provide benefits for everyone currently enrolled in WIC. If there is insufficient funding for the program, it will be distributed in terms of greatest need—meaning that many mothers and young children would likely be forced onto waiting lists.

“Without a commitment and action by Congress to fully fund this vital program, WIC participants, state agencies and the WIC clinics responsible for providing direct support for moms and kids face uncertainty,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement. “At the end of the day, this … decision is about values—this Administration is proud to fully support WIC and the critical benefits it provides for millions of mothers, babies and young kids, and it is past time that Congress steps up to the plate and commits to doing the same.”

Despite the time crunch—which often breeds deal-making—it’s unclear how likely Harris’s plan is to make it into the final appropriations bill. “That’s a nonstarter,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, the Democratic chair of the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture in the Senate. “Using appropriations bills to pass a policy you can’t pass in the normal course of legislating is just a recipe for not getting bills done.”

There’s also the matter of jurisdiction. SNAP is typically governed by the farm bill, a piece of massive legislation that covers agriculture, conservation, and nutrition—and is the purview of the Agriculture Committees in the House and Senate. Congress already made changes to SNAP outside of the farm bill, when more stringent work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults were added as part of a legislative deal to raise the debt ceiling. Addressing SNAP in the appropriations bill for the USDA would be a further change in how it is typically approved. (The Agriculture Committee is currently still negotiating the latest farm bill.)

“The problem that I would have is that I really think that’s under the authority of the full [Agriculture] Committee,” said GOP Senator John Boozman, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “That’s a pretty major step.”

Even if changes to SNAP are taken off the table, it doesn’t address the problem of keeping WIC solvent in the long term. Nor would another stopgap funding measure to keep the government open temporarily while lawmakers finalize appropriations bills, a scenario that is looking increasingly likely as congressional leaders reaffirm their commitment to averting a shutdown.

“Another continuing resolution, whether it’s short-term or for a full year, does nothing to clear up the uncertainty … for state and local agencies that are trying to prepare, it does nothing to change the prospect for millions of new moms who could be turned away from WIC,” said Craig Moscetti, senior manager of policy for the No Kid Hungry Campaign by the advocacy organization Share Our Strength. “Really, the only long-term solution here is to commit to full funding of WIC.”

This article has been updated to reflect that congressional leaders reached a deal on a temporary appropriations agreement.