House Agriculture Committee concludes two-year review of the past, present and future of SNAP

December 12, 2016
Source: High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal
Author: Larry Dreiling

The House Agriculture Committee Nov. 16 held a hearing in its continuing review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to learn about and evaluate innovative strategies retailers across the country are utilizing to improve access to nutritious food.

Committee members heard from organizations that are working creatively to provide nutritious food to low-income individuals in low-access areas through online platforms and incentive programs.

“Communities across the country have different needs when it comes to food access. Some individuals have access to a grocer on every street corner, while others are miles away from the nearest store,” Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, said.

“However, consumers nationwide are able to purchase a variety of items online that can be delivered directly to their homes, and I am excited to hear how this technology can be used to provide SNAP recipients the same sort of access to nutritious food. This capability, along with other innovations like mobile markets and nutrition incentive programs, has great potential to increase access to healthy foods and to more effectively meet the needs of SNAP recipients.”

Over the course of the 114th Congress, the committee heard from 55 witnesses at 15 different hearings in its series on the past, present and future of SNAP, Conaway said, hearing from witnesses discussing their experiences as SNAP recipients, from state agencies implementing SNAP across the country, from charitable partners that work with SNAP recipients, from innovative organizations receiving SNAP funding to help improve and target SNAP programs, from retailers who sell food and provide access to healthy foods in their local communities and from a wide range of other partners, implementers, government agencies and stakeholders.

“These witnesses have expressed an array of opinions on the successes and failures of SNAP at serving people in need of nutritious, wholesome food. They have shared great accomplishments, but have also pointed out that there is room for improvement. The findings of our two-year review are being compiled into a comprehensive report that we plan to release next month,” Conaway said.

In the 16th and final hearing of the series, witnesses represented organizations at the forefront of improving access to healthy food.

“At this point, we have all heard about ‘food deserts’ and concerns about whether those who receive SNAP benefits can actually make healthy purchases with the benefits they receive. The organizations represented here are working to address those concerns in unique and innovative ways. It is my hope that some of the ideas discussed in this hearing can be applied more broadly throughout SNAP to enhance program delivery,” Conaway said.

“As we have discussed time and again, SNAP is not a one-size-fits-all program. Different communities have different needs, and there are different gaps in SNAP delivery. So I am looking forward to hearing how the steps that today’s witnesses have taken target the unique needs of the communities they each serve.”

Conaway said he was especially cognizant of the challenges that many who live in rural America face in accessing healthy food. Online purchases, whether or not they are made through SNAP, can increase access to fresh foods for customers in rural and urban communities alike who are not near—or able to travel to—a fresh food retailer.

“Companies like Amazon are well known for their online presence and our other witnesses, while perhaps less well known, are in some cases already delivering groceries to customers through online purchases,” Conaway said. “While these online platforms certainly increase access to food, online sales also raise implementation questions related to shipping, product freshness, product availability and cost.

“As a taxpayer myself, and as a steward of taxpayer dollars, I want the dollars that go toward SNAP to be well spent. SNAP dollars that are used inefficiently are SNAP dollars that are not feeding people, or helping them learn about healthy eating, or helping them find work and ultimately lifting them off of the program. SNAP dollars should provide the greatest benefit possible and allow for the maximum improvement in nutrition for the households that need them. Hopefully, innovations in how customers make their food purchases will prove to be one such way those efficiencies can be gained.”

Added Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN: “Today we are continuing the committee’s review of SNAP by looking at what food providers are doing to improve access to food. There are a lot of different approaches and I am looking forward to hearing testimony from our witnesses.

“This is our 18th SNAP review hearing and, I believe, this is the final hearing this year. We’ve covered a lot of issues but the overwhelming theme of the testimony has shown us that while there are some areas for improvement, SNAP works. We’ve also heard testimony opposing efforts to block grant SNAP and on the importance of keeping SNAP within the farm bill. I hope we can keep these themes in mind as we start work on the farm bill next year.”

As it was the final hearing of the session, Conaway took time to thank Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-TX, for his service as the vice chairman of the committee.

“Over the past 13 years, he has faithfully served this committee and the people of west Texas, and I wish him nothing but the best as he enters this new chapter. Randy, you will be missed,” Conaway said.

Among the witnesses was Mike Beal, chief operating officer of Balls Food Stores, Kansas City, Kansas, a licensee of the Price Chopper brand of grocers, who described his company’s successes with the Double Up Food Bucks program with the committee. The DUFB program is the result of a collaboration of a number of entities: Good Natured Farms, Inc., the Fair Food Network, the University of Kansas Medical Center, the Mid-America Regional Council, and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

The primary goals of the program are to provide access to and increase affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables for recipients of SNAP benefits, provide greater opportunities for local farmers to increase their income by selling more produce locally and provide more dollars to the local community.

The premise of DUFB is very simple: for every dollar a customer spends on local produce using an EBT card to pay, that customer earns a dollar to spend on produce from any source on a future shopping trip, up to $25 per day in earnings. The earnings by the SNAP customer are accumulated throughout the year until that customer notifies the cashier they want to spend some or all of their earnings on any type of produce on a later shopping trip.

“In 2015, we launched a pilot of DUFB in four of our Price Chopper stores in the Kansas City area,” Beal said. “Because of the initial success of the program, a fifth Price Chopper store was added late in the summer of 2015. We experienced tremendous success with the pilot and were able to convert the pilot to a year-round program operating in all 14 of our Price Chopper stores in 2016.

“It is the goal of Balls Food Stores and the other partners in the DUFB program to extend the DUFB program to the remaining 37 Price Chopper stores in the Kansas City area in 2017.”

First posted on High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal December 12, 2016.