Spotlight Exclusives

The Future of SNAP: A Conversation with Helena Bottemiller Evich

Helena Bottemiller Evich, POLITICO Helena Bottemiller Evich, POLITICO, posted on

The Trump administration’s proposed 2019 budget included a notable addition, a proposal to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by replacing half of the benefits for a majority of recipients with a monthly “Harvest Box” full of nonperishable items. The proposal generated strong reactions within the anti-poverty community, but it’s not the only reform to the SNAP program that has been recently under discussion. Spotlight spoke with Helena Bottemiller Evich, senior food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro, about the Trump administration’s proposal as well as the SNAP program and food insecurity more broadly. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Even before this proposal, Republicans have been considering potential changes to SNAP. What sort of things have been considered?

There has certainly been conversation and speculation about what Congress might do in terms of tightening up work requirements for SNAP during the reauthorization of the farm bill—which contains the funding for SNAP. The current bill will be negotiated this year, so Congress will have to look at these issues again. This is the first time in a longtime Republicans have had control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency during reauthorization—and there has been interest in making reforms.

There are already work requirements in the program for able-bodied adults without dependents, although a lot of states were able to waive those requirements during the recession. Many states no longer have those waivers, but some still do. And conservatives would really like to get rid of the flexibility that states have around these types of waivers. The details are hazy, but this is one area of potential reform.

What can you say about the “Harvest Box” proposal. Is there any chance of it become reality?

By all accounts it’s completely dead in the water. Congress has not shown a willingness to make large, systemic changes to SNAP. This is mostly out of a recognition that it is not politically feasible. If you were to make really big changes to SNAP, there is a general consensus that it would doom the farm bill. Reauthorization depends on a delicate coalition of urban lawmakers who don’t have a lot of farmers in their district and rural lawmakers who are really concerned about funding for farms.

The details on it are also unclear. The idea is that these boxes would be shipped to homes, but it’s extremely expensive to mail heavy, canned goods. The further you dive into logistics; the more complications arise.

The idea that Congress is suddenly going to take half of recipient benefits and allocate this funding towards these boxes without any real details of the distribution is far-fetched.

Can you imagine the proposal morphing into something that has more political legs?

This concept was mocked pretty heavily by Democrats, hunger groups, and the food industry—as well as behind the scenes by the agricultural community. People were joking that it was the type of thing you would see out of communist Russia.

If the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) received funding to test the idea that would be a sign that that it was beginning to be taken seriously. The Office of Management and Budget did request $30 million from Congress to pilot the boxes, but it’s unclear whether that will move forward.

The farm bill brings together a number of somewhat disparate stakeholders. Can you talk a bit about the politics around this?

In the last renewal cycle, there was an attempt in the House to separate SNAP out from the rest of the bill, but that was unsuccessful and it had to eventually be put back in to secure passage. There’s interest among some conservatives in removing SNAP from the farm bill since they think it’s easier to reform the program when it’s a separate entity.

Anti-hunger groups have formed a strong coalition around keeping the farm bill intact. There’s almost no major farm bill stakeholders who aren’t strongly committed to keeping SNAP as part of the bill. I think there’s little chance of any kind of major changes to the composition of the bill.

Do you have a sense of what sort of what sort of any changes, if any, to SNAP might emerge during this reauthorization?

Most people are betting that only very modest reforms could get through the Senate. What qualifies as modest is still TBD; but you shouldn’t expect radical changes. Mike Conway, the chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, has been very clear that he wants the House bill to focus on tightening up work requirements. It’s much less clear what changes the Senate might seek.

We’ve talked about some about the polarized politics around SNAP. Are there examples or opportunities for bipartisan cooperation?

Last reauthorization cycle, there was about $200 million set aside to do a big pilot focused on helping states try and figure out how to get recipients back to work or into better paying jobs. There was strong bipartisan support around this because it wasn’t trying to bump people out of the program. Unfortunately, the results won’t be available before this renewal.

Work requirements end up being much more polarizing, because there are many Democrats who think that simply defining someone as “able-bodied” doesn’t captured the range of circumstances and challenges they face.

Part of Spotlight’s mission is to amplify and increase media coverage of poverty and opportunity. As a journalist in this space, do you think the media is doing a good job in covering hunger and food insecurity issues?

Food and agricultural issues are being covered a lot more now than they were a few years ago. There are more reporters focused on this beat, and it’s become something closer to a mainstream topic. In terms of food insecurity, I just think it’s very hard for it break through right now. The political landscape is so crazy that most public health or policy issues don’t end up resonating as much as they could.

One of the reasons I think the “Harvest Box” story broke through and caused people to go crazy was (Office of Management and Budget Director) Mick Mulvaney characterizing it as a Blue Apron type-program. It’s really modeled after the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides non-perishable foods to seniors. That’s pretty different than Blue Apron, which is mostly fresh foods and targeted at high-end consumers. So that disconnect was striking to people.

Helena Bottemiller Evich is a senior food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro.

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