HEAL Farm Bill Backgrounder – Nutrition Assistance

Nourishing People

The US produces more than enough food to feed everyone. However, our food system (and our economy overall) is set up in a way that leads to inequality and food insecurity, making it difficult for many people and families to access the food they need.

Nutrition Assistance in the Farm Bill

Nutrition programs were an important part of the first Farm Bill in 1933. Developed as farmers went out of business and people starved during the Great Depression, the first Farm Bill was designed to stabilize prices for farmers and provide a social safety net for consumers. Today, around 75 percent of farm bill spending goes toward nutrition programs.

In the 1970s, the farm bill added the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps.” Today, SNAP helps over 40 million people across the country afford groceries. Despite common misperceptions, the majority of SNAP participants are white, and many are rural

In spite of its importance, SNAP is often on the chopping block in farm bill negotiations. Some lawmakers claim that the program represents excessive government spending or that benefits are “abused” or used by people who don’t need them. Based on these assumptions, previous farm bill negotiations have imposed restrictions, including work requirements. But in reality, SNAP is a very efficient program with an extremely low rate of fraud. The vast majority of SNAP funding goes directly to beneficiaries.

In fact, SNAP only covers a fraction of what people actually need. On average, SNAP participants receive an estimated $127 per month (with an absolute maximum of $658 for a household of three people with no source of income). This is often not enough to cover grocery bills, especially amid inflation and price increases caused by corporate greed. During the pandemic, Congress authorized Emergency Allotments (EAs) to temporarily increase the amount SNAP participants could receive. But when those EAs ended in March 2023, many individuals and families saw steep decreases in their benefits, even as inflation, unemployment, and housing costs continued to rise.

On top of that, many people who are food insecure do not qualify for SNAP, due to income restrictions, immigration status, or previous incarceration. Residents of US Territories and many low-income college students also do not qualify for SNAP. We actually need more investment in SNAP and similar nutrition programs, and the removal of work requirements and other barriers to program participation, to ensure that no one goes hungry. 

In spite of what some lawmakers may claim, SNAP propels economic growth — especially during recessions. With disposable income, people quickly purchase food, which in turn stimulates demand and keeps the economy going. SNAP spending in the six years following the Great Recession (2007 - 2009) contributed to hundreds of billions of dollars in increased economic growth in both rural and urban areas, and supported the employment of 279,000 rural workers and 811,000 urban workers. And economists have projected that a $1 billion increase in SNAP spending during a slowing economy could increase Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by an additional $1.54 billion and support 13,560 jobs.

Why Can’t People Afford Food?

Although some lawmakers blame individuals for needing SNAP benefits, the problem goes much deeper. The US produces huge amounts of food, yet 1 in 8 people can’t access the food that they need. There are a couple of key reasons for this. 

First, our food system is highly inefficient, and much of the food we produce doesn’t reach the people who need it. Since the 1970s, farm bill legislation and other federal policies have encouraged overproduction of grains. But most of the grains we grow aren’t directly consumed. Instead, they are used for animal feed and ethanol, with surpluses being exported overseas. Cheap grains enable food corporations to sell ultra-processed foods for low prices, while making vegetables, fruits, and other dietary components more expensive. This is especially true for low-income communities of color, who often lack access to grocery stores due to supermarket redlining (in which supermarkets preferentially locate stores in wealthier neighborhoods and/or remove existing stores from lower-income urban neighborhoods). In low-income communities, the quality of basic groceries is lower, while the prices are much higher than at grocery stores in wealthier, white communities.

Second, policies since the 1970s have favored the interests of corporations and banks, while steadily eroding the rights of working people. Federal and state policies have allowed a range of industries to effectively crush labor unions, eroding workers’ bargaining power. Groups like the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Fight for 15 have been fighting for an increase in the federal minimum wage (including the tipped minimum wage) for the past decade, but many lawmakers have blocked these attempts, due to powerful corporate lobbying efforts. In reality, even a $15 minimum wage would not cover the cost of living in most of the US and would leave many families in poverty. Meanwhile, corporate consolidation and deregulation enable big corporations to increase costs to consumers. In this precarious environment, sudden layoffs, disability, or changes in household status often force families and individuals to make hard choices about what to prioritize among various bills and costs. In this context, SNAP ensures that people can have some funds to purchase food. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment in SNAP has increased by 12 percent, demonstrating the program’s importance in helping individuals and families weather times of distress and disruption.

In addition, many people are excluded from the official workforce, instead working jobs that are insecure and paid below the legal minimum wage. In most of the US, formerly incarcerated people face huge barriers to accessing jobs. And many people who are forced to migrate to the US lack the documentation and permitting required to access well-paying jobs. Undocumented farmworkers, for example, often experience much higher rates of food insecurity and hunger than the rest of the US population, despite spending their days harvesting the food that the rest of us eat. Yet these groups of people, who would greatly benefit from SNAP and other food assistance programs, are currently ineligible to receive support.

What can we do?

  • Support the Puerto Rico Nutrition Assistance Fairness Act, which would enable Puerto Rico to participate in SNAP, rather than receiving a block grant to fund its nutrition assistance program.
  • Include provisions in the farm bill to expand SNAP eligibility (including to US Territories, formerly incarcerated people, and low-income students) and make the program more accessible, by removing work requirements, waiting periods, and arbitrary time limits.
  • Include provisions in the farm bill to expand the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) (including increased support for retail outlets to participate in the program and purchase local products from BIPOC producers) and to increase funding and support for other nutrition programs.
  • Oppose the Jobs and Opportunities for SNAP Act of 2023 and the Let’s Get to Work Act of 2023, both of which aim to increase work requirements for SNAP and make it even harder for people to access the food and support that they need.