USDA tells Senate panel it’s struggling to feed needy families


A U.S. Department of Agriculture official testified Thursday that some of the agency’s food programs are being overburdened in the push to feed needy families.

The acknowledgment came Thursday morning as Republicans on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee repeatedly hammered the USDA over a dramatic rise in its spending to update a nutrition program known as the Thrifty Food Plan.

“We are making changes to the federal nutrition programs to ensure that our support is meaningful and push the needle on that issue of food insecurity that you raise,” Stacy Dean, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “But it’s also the case that I think some of our programs are being asked to do too much.”

Dean highlighted benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly known as food stamps — as an example. SNAP is intended to help needy families gain access to healthful foods.

“SNAP benefits are covering a whole food budget when households are supposed to contribute their income,” Dean said. “But their income is strapped because they’re a working family that can’t afford child care, their health insurance might be out of reach for them or they are living in a state that hasn’t offered Medicaid coverage, the refundable child tax credit is no longer there for them.”

A 10-year budget and economic outlook released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected an $8-billion increase in SNAP spending for 2023 and $93 billion for it over the next decade. The CBO cited higher SNAP enrollment and the rising costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to determine SNAP benefit levels, as reasons for the 6% and 8% increases, respectively.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the committee chair, framed SNAP in her opening remarks as “a modest form of help” on the individual level. “The average benefit is only about $6 per person per day,” she said. “$6 for all of their meals combined. I’m sure there is at least one person in this room right now who has spent more than that on their morning coffee.”

Stabenow also said the last farm bill — which was passed in 2018 and is taken up in Congress every five years — “directed a long overdue reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan.” She said “the assumptions on which SNAP is made” hadn’t been updated since 1975.

“This update increased the average SNAP benefit by less than $2 a day, a modest increase but one that is estimated to lift 2.4 million people, including 1 million children, out of poverty,” she said.

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), the top Republican on the committee, lamented that nutrition is the costliest portion of the farm bill. The CBO estimate projected nutrition programs in the farm bill to cost more than $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

“The pandemic and inflation drove some of these cost increases, but let there be no doubt that the largest driver was a decision by the leadership of the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services mission area to abandon 40 years of precedent and increase SNAP benefits by 21% to record-high levels, levels that are unsustainable,” he said.

“Some will cynically point to the provisions to update the Thrifty Food Plan in the 2018 farm bill as the basis for USDA’s action, but Congress never agreed to permit a quarter of a trillion dollars — quarter of a trillion dollars — spending increase.”

Boozman argued that the USDA’s actions have made passage of the next farm bill “much more difficult because they showed a lack of good judgment and a gross abuse of discretion” that disrupted the balance of the farm bill coalition and “severely eroded” trust. He questioned whether the unprecedented spending increase would leave any funds for farmers.

“As a reminder, SNAP is intended to supplement a beneficiary’s monthly grocery budget,” Boozman said. “It was not created to serve as the beneficiary’s monthly grocery budget.”

Dean testified that SNAP “is one of the most effective tools” for helping households reach nutrition security while also reducing poverty, boosting the local economy and promoting food security.

“It reduces poverty and food hardship,” Dean said. “It’s a lifeline for its 41 million participants.”

She also maintained that the USDA stands by its process for updating the Thrifty Food Plan, which she described as “sound,” “robust” and “evidence-based.”

Dean said the 2018 farm bill required the USDA to reevaluate “and essentially update” its cost estimate for a budget-conscious healthful diet. The evaluation looked at four areas, she said: current prices, new dietary guidelines, nutrients in food and what types of foods Americans buy.

It “resulted in the first increase in real purchasing power benefit in over 45 years, but that amount increased 40 cents per person per meal,” she continued. “Of course, in aggregate, it was a significant increase, but it also very clearly puts healthy food within reach for tens of millions of Americans.”

Boozman countered that the CBO had projected no cost increase at all, pointing out why Republicans were so concerned by the surprise $250 billion in spending. Some of his GOP colleagues on the committee asked why the USDA wasn’t enforcing work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries, something Congress temporarily suspended until the public health emergency is lifted.

While Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) advocated for the USDA to return SNAP spending to previous levels while accounting for the pandemic and inflation, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) argued that SNAP is a great benefit but has never done enough to help most families.

“SNAP is a lifeline to the families that receive it: seniors, children, individuals with disabilities,” Dean said in response to questions from Gillibrand. “It’s a modest benefit and yet it is the difference between having enough money to purchase a healthy diet and not having enough money at all to feed your kids or feed your family. Cuts that would reduce eligibility or lower benefits are deeply concerning to me in the abstract because we know how many families are really living on the edge and what a lifeline this benefit is.”