Republicans Eye SNAP Junk Food Restrictions In Government Funding Standoff

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) wants to let states try cutting junk food out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

WASHINGTON — The next government shutdown fight could also be a food fight.

Republicans could win a crackdown on junk food in the federal government’s flagship nutrition program in legislation Congress needs to pass this week to prevent a partial government shutdown on Friday.

Democrats oppose adding dietary restrictions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but they’re eager to boost funding in a smaller program that helps pregnant women and nursing mothers buy nutritious food, so a deal is at hand.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) has proposed asking states to test out limiting SNAP benefits to “only nutrient-dense foods and beverages,” meaning no soda or candy. Data suggests that sweetened beverages are a major expenditure for households receiving SNAP benefits.

Harris, a member of the House committee that writes funding bills, has argued restricting SNAP spending on junk food could combat the obesity epidemic and potentially save the government money.

“If SNAP more effectively addressed nutrition, it could help reduce the prevalence of obesity, which in turn would lower healthcare costs in the U.S. and help address the country’s long-term fiscal challenges,” Harris wrote in a joint op-ed with Angela Rachidi, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, earlier this year. “An important first step is to restrict sweetened beverages from SNAP.”

More than 20 million households receive monthly SNAP benefits, averaging $363, that can be redeemed at grocery stores for almost any food item. It’s one of the federal government’s most responsive and best-known anti-poverty programs.

The Harris proposal calls for pilot projects testing a junk food ban in at least one state, but no more than five.

Democrats are also angling for a nutrition policy change, namely more funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC. Politico’s Meredith Lee Hill first reported earlier this month that the framework of a USDA funding bill with the SNAP and WIC changes is under review by party leaders. Spokespeople for leadership declined to comment on Monday.

Unlike SNAP, which automatically receives funding to meet enrollment, the WIC program needs annual appropriations from lawmakers. The Biden administration has said it faces a $1 billion shortfall this year that could jeopardize benefits for its 6 million recipients.

“Many states would likely implement waiting lists for applicants to reduce costs,” the Agriculture Department warned in January. The White House has pushed for the funding since August.

With the government funding deadline fast approaching, and under pressure from Democrats to avoid a shutdown, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) complained on social media Sunday evening that “many of the points still being debated come from new Democrat demands,” in an apparent reference to the request for WIC funding.

It’s possible Johnson could use restrictions on SNAP benefits as a conservative policy win to placate far-right House Republicans who dislike bipartisan spending agreements. Last year, Republicans won modest changes to SNAP’s “work requirements” as part of a deal to allow the federal government to pay its debts.

Republicans have proposed dietary restrictions in SNAP for years without much luck. Anti-poverty groups and the food industry alike oppose the government picking winners and losers in poor people’s shopping carts. (The WIC program, by contrast, already operates with extensive nutrition rules.)

“The government will need to categorize more than 600,000 products and update the list each year with thousands more products,” the National Grocers Association said in a letter to lawmakers last week. “Grocery store cashiers will become the food police, telling parents what they can and cannot feed their families.”

Popular in the Community


What's Hot