IOwa House Republicans drafted House File 3 this month, a bill that proposes strict limits on the foods SNAP recipients could buy with their benefits, including white bread, meat fresh and sliced cheese. Many believe the new bill would place unnecessary financial pressure on Iowa’s most vulnerable communities.
The bill, which was cosponsored by 39 Republicans, would require SNAP recipients to have a more restrictive list of foods they can buy that reflects foods approved for the state’s current Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. It would also require an asset limit for SNAP participants and Medicare recipients would have to work at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits.
House File 3 is receiving substantial pushback from state Democrats and hunger advocacy groups who argue the bill will negatively affect those struggling to keep up with rising food costs and still reeling from the inflation and job losses caused by the pandemic.
“I’ve been telling lawmakers in the state of Iowa that we have food banks and food pantries that are breaking records in terms of the number of people turning to them for help,” Iowa President Luke Elzinga The Hunger Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for fair food policy, tells TIME. “At the same time, the number of Iowans enrolled in SNAP is at its lowest point in 14 years.”
“That tells me the state needs to do more to make sure SNAP is accessible to people facing food insecurity, and House File 3 seems to be going in the opposite direction,” he adds.
Restrictions in House File 3
SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the largest federal program that helps low-income Americans pay for food through fixed monthly budgets that they can redeem at grocery stores.
The list of restrictive foods proposed in House File 3 was copied from WIC, which was created to support maternal and early childhood health. Some experts argue that the WIC diet is not right for all SNAP enrollees due to the wide demographic range.
“If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, postpartum, an infant or a child under five, you have very specific nutritional needs,” Lauren Au, a professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, who researches nutrition policy, tells TIME. .
Au adds that SNAP provides “such a small amount of funding for food.” As supplemental nutrition assistance, it is not designed to be a household’s sole source of food, so the policy should not treat it as such.
With WIC restrictions, Iowan SNAP recipients would not be able to buy things like non-whole grains, fresh meat, spices, oil, canned fruits or vegetables, and other kitchen staples.
“If you live in poverty and you use a program, and there’s already so much stigma around SNAP, to be told, ‘We’re going to watch what food you can get,’ is incredibly detrimental to people’s mental health. says Elzinga.
He says the restrictions do not take into account food allergies, medical conditions that require a specific diet, religious limitations or cultural preferences. “I know a woman with an eating disorder who takes SNAP,” Elzinga says. He adds how triggering restrictive eating is for some people.
“You can get 100% whole wheat pasta, but not rice noodles. There is brown rice, but no white rice,” says Elzinga.
The asset restrictions in House File 3 would mean families with $2,750 – $4,250 in assets or savings would no longer be eligible for any benefits, which critics say discourages people from increasing their savings. It would particularly affect households that own more than one car, which is common in rural areas with poor public transportation and in large families.
Au says that comparing the ability to afford food versus the assets a person owns doesn’t take into account that “there’s a lot more of a story there that you might not know.”
On the other hand, the bill allocates $1 million to the state’s Double Up Food Bucks program, which incentivizes SNAP recipients to get more fruits and vegetables. Elzinga’s coalition supports this funding, but wants it in a separate bill without the asset and WIC restrictions.
The legislator’s reasoning
Sami Scheetz, the freshman Democratic representative from Iowa’s 78th district, is a vocal opponent of House File 3, or as he calls it, a “truly terrible bill.”
“Iowans have been fighting for years. First, the pandemic destroyed our economy, and to this day we have record inflation that we haven’t seen in 14 years that has increased the cost of basic things like food and gasoline,” Scheetz tells TIME. “Making it harder and more restrictive for people to get the basic things they need for themselves and their families to survive…is wrong.”
According to House Republicans, the proposal, which is currently being discussed in subcommittees, would help reduce costs. “It’s these rights programs. They are the ones growing within the budget and putting pressure on us so we can fund other priorities,” House Speaker Pat Grassley told KCCI, a Des Moines news outlet.
In September, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds proudly announced that the state had a budget surplus of $1.91 billion, a far cry from Grassley’s stingy rhetoric.
Scheetz counters that it is the federal government, not Iowa, that pays 100% of SNAP food assistance costs. The federal and state governments split the administrative costs of SNAP 50/50, so all the administrative work that would be needed to implement the bill would theoretically only increase costs for Iowa, according to Elzinga.
SNAP’s administrative costs in Iowa have been fairly constant for more than a decade, another reason it’s unusual for the program to aim to cut costs. In 2009, Iowa spent $24,690,105, compared to 2020 when the state spent $22,355,466, according to data from the Iowa Hunger Coalition.
“Not only is it wrong philosophically and morally, but it’s bad for Iowa agriculture today,” says Scheetz. Iowa is one of the leading states in the country in agricultural production, ranking first in the sale of corn, soybeans and pork.
Of Iowa’s 55 major lobby groups, 22 groups are publicly against the bill, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Save the Children Action Network and Tyson Foods. 31 groups are undecided and only two groups support the bill.
The future of House File 3
Over the years, federal legislators and other states have floated similar ideas to restrict certain foods from SNAP benefits, but the legislation rarely passes because research shows it tends to hurt SNAP recipients, financially and from the point of view of health.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees SNAP and has to approve all changes. Elzinga explains that the USDA is tough when it comes to SNAP, such as in 2015 and 2018 when Maine’s attempts to ban soda and candy from its SNAP food list were denied. He predicts that House File 3 will most likely not be approved by the department even if it leaves the floor of the General Assembly.
“I think the message this bill sends to low-income Iowans is that the state doesn’t trust you to make your own decisions about food for your family,” Elzinga says. “You are reinforcing a false narrative that poor people on welfare programs are ripping off the government, and that is not the reality.”
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