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SNAP Choice Preserved As Deliberations Continue On Nutrition Policies

A variety of grocery items in reusable bags to illustrate nutrition policies in Farm Bill

A year ago, independent grocers were looking toward a reauthorization of the Farm Bill, the nation’s nutrition policy roadmap that’s supposed to be updated every five years.

Work toward a new Farm Bill has continued since last November, when lawmakers passed a one-year extension to the 2018 legislation. A politically divided Congress continues to hammer out a new bill as they hear from key stakeholders on what aspects of the policy to retain, eliminate, enhance or diminish.

During the first week of May, Senate Democrats and House Republicans released their proposals for the Farm Bill. The full summary of the Senate Democrats’ bill included several wins for independent grocers, including protection from fees, protection of SNAP choice and increased funding for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and nutrition incentives.

[RELATED: Independent Grocer Testifies On Protecting SNAP Choice]

The House Republican proposal is a framework that includes vague references to improving health and cuts benefits slightly by making future Thrifty Food Plans cost neutral. The full text of the House bill was expected to be released and pass out of committee by Memorial Day.

Details continued to emerge as work on the bill progressed into May, but as of the deadline for this writing, NGA is pleased to see movement on the Farm Bill from both sides of the Capitol.

Independent grocers have already chalked up a few wins on nutrition policy as NGA plays an active role in demonstrating to policymakers the importance of Main Street supermarkets in enhancing consumer choice and access to fresh foods and other daily staples.

In early March, Congress chose to protect grocers and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants by eliminating a proposed provision in the House Agriculture Appropriations that could have caused widespread disruptions and undercut SNAP’s effectiveness – a proposal that looked simple on paper but would have created confusion for program participants and resulted in a costly bureaucratic nightmare for small businesses around the country.

This provision would have sharply limited the types of foods covered under SNAP and forced grocers to examine hundreds of thousands of food items to decide which qualify and which don’t. The proposed pilot program would have asked the government to pick winners and losers in the grocery sector and harmed the 42 million SNAP participants who have diverse nutritional needs.

SNAP restriction proposals usually fall under Agriculture Committee jurisdiction and are fought in Farm Bill negotiations. But the most recent Congressional push to restrict SNAP purchases is led by the chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, who is using his position on the dais to force this policy through as an appropriations policy rider.

Independent grocers also had a victory last fall when Congress, in bipartisan agreement, extended the prohibition on electronic benefits transfer (EBT) processing fees for SNAP as part of the one-year extension of the 2018 Farm Bill.

If EBT processing fees were allowed, stores of all sizes would have been forced to pay new fees on EBT transactions, which would likely reduce the number of participating retailers in the program. While NGA continues to fight for the permanent abolition of these fees, credit for the short-term victory goes largely to the hundreds of NGA members who appealed to their representatives in Congress about the negative impact these added costs would have on their communities.

These grassroots efforts are crucial to the ongoing fight for policies that help independent grocers better serve their communities. Other priorities for the new Farm Bill include maintaining the current program structure and expanding and streamlining the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) to drive consumption of fresh produce.

While not in the Farm Bill, WIC has kept policy makers busy over the past few months as well. NGA supported the $7.03 billion in funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which is an essential nutrition safety net for families facing hardship. Independent community grocers across America have long been valuable collaborators with federal and state government agencies in the implementation of WIC.

More recently, NGA was encouraged by the final rule issued in April by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to revise the food package within WIC, the first such revision since 2009. NGA submitted comments on the rule, supporting many of the food package expansions finalized by the USDA including expanded product offerings, pack size flexibility, product substitutions and “up to” amounts. Changes like this will improve consumers’ shopping experience and enable retailers to better meet their needs.

For example, the final rule allows states to authorize a greater variety of package sizes to increase variety and choice, while still providing participants with package sizes that ensure their purchases add up to the full benefit amount. Expanding package sizes will allow for more flexibility for WIC participants and retailers. This will make the program easier for retailers to administer while building flexibility for participants.

For more details, read NGA’s complete summary of the rule changes.

In an election year, with control of Congress as well as the White House on the line, lawmakers will be paying particular attention to the needs of their home districts – all the more reason for independent grocers to make their voices heard as work toward a new Farm Bill and funding the government proceeds while the election season unfolds.

About the author

Greg Ferrara

President and CEO of NGA

Greg Ferrara is the President and CEO of NGA. The National Grocers Association is the trade association representing the U.S. independent community supermarket industry. NGA members include retail and wholesale grocers located in every congressional district across the country, as well as state grocers’ associations, manufacturers and service suppliers.

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