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Meatless SNAP: Bill envisions cutting staples from food aid

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The Iowa State Capitol building, Friday, May 20, 2022, in Des Moines.

DES MOINES — Iowans on the food assistance program known as SNAP would have far fewer food purchasing options — not being able to use the benefits to buy meat, nuts or canned fruits and vegetables — under legislation proposed by Republican lawmakers.

However, the bill may be amended eventually to include more foods, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley said.

For the time being, the legislation as written — which has 39 House Republican sponsors, including Grassley — would limit SNAP program users to only foods eligible for users of WIC, the nutrition assistance program for expectant mothers.

That means SNAP users would be limited to purchasing WIC-approved foods like milk, juice, cereal, bread, rice, pasta, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and yogurt.

But SNAP users would no longer be able to purchase with the aid many other foods, including meat, poultry, fish, canned fruits and vegetables and items commonly used in food preparation like butter, flour, spices and seasonings, sugar, and vegetable oil, and ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and other condiments.

In addition to food banks and anti-hunger advocacy groups, among those registered as against the bill, according to state lobbying records, is Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor of chicken, beef and pork with meatpacking plants in Iowa.

Grassley said the legislation was designed to ensure accountability in Iowa’s assistance programs, like SNAP, to make sure they are sustainable. The food assistance program is funded by the federal government and jointly administered by the federal and state governments.

According to federal data, Iowa’s share of the program’s administrative costs in the 2020 budget year was $22 million, and its average administrative costs of $27.84 per case per month was 18th-lowest among U.S. states.

Grassley said the legislation, which was one of 13 bills published by House Republicans as their priorities, will work through the legislative process and could be amended.

Any legislation that would change Iowa’s SNAP program would require federal approval.

“Our goal is not just to eliminate swaths of things,” Grassley said in response to a question about cutting meat and other categories of food out of the SNAP program. “But I think there needs to be some level of accountability, and make sure that they’re really things that should qualify. If you don’t lead a healthy lifestyle, that leads to more use of the (government-funded) services.”

The legislation, House File 3, contains other provisions that would add more levels of oversight and reporting, which proponents of such proposals say is needed to limit fraud. Critics of such requirements say they are extraneous because there is little fraud in the system now, and adding hurdles could lead to rejecting individuals who are in need of the assistance.

Such proposals have passed out of the Iowa Senate in recent years, but have not been passed out of the Iowa House.

Luke Elzinga, an advocate for anti-poverty policies and policy and advocacy manager of the nonprofit Des Moines Area Religious Council, criticized the legislation and said it comes at a time when food banks and food pantries in Iowa are seeing record numbers of people, while the number of Iowans enrolled in SNAP has been falling for years.

Iowa’s average monthly SNAP participation of roughly 279,000 in the 2022 budget year was the lowest since 2008, according to federal data.

“(The bill) is a misguided and harmful bill that would severely limit food choices for Iowans on SNAP, kick people off the SNAP program, and increase hunger and food insecurity in our state,” Elzinga said. There are a lot of Iowans struggling to put food on the table right now. … We should be exploring ways to expand access to SNAP, not creating more barriers to receive assistance.”

The bill has not yet been assigned a subcommittee hearing, which is the first step in the legislative process.

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