Supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP)

The Farm Bill is the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government. The Farm Bill deals with agriculture policy issues as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as the “food stamp” program, and other federal nutrition programs. SNAP funding is currently over $60 billion annually and represents 80 percent of the Farm Bill spending. Debates over applying stricter work requirements for SNAP participants and limiting foods that are eligible for SNAP will be lightning rods for bigger partisan fights on overall welfare reform. In addition, though it has been widely criticized since its February 12release, the president’s budget proposal included an idea for overhauling the way SNAP is run. The proposal would change the way households receiving $90+/month in SNAP benefits would receive their benefits; a portion of their benefits would come in an actual food package (“America’s Harvest Box”), to include items like shelf-stable food items; and, states would have the flexibility in designing the food box delivery system. The remainder of their benefit would go on the SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card for use at approved grocery retailers.

This proposal comes on the heels of the USDA denying two waivers from the states of Maine and Nevada requesting to move forward with state-level food (candy) and beverage (sugar sweetened beverages) restrictions for SNAP recipients. The Trump administration took a lengthy time considering these waivers, which have historically been denied in much quicker fashion by USDA under both parties. 

In a joint statement, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Conaway (R-TX) and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Roberts (R-KS) said their work continues on this year’s Farm Bill, and all indications point to this proposal being essentially dead on arrival. As a reminder, over the past two years, the House Agriculture Committee has completed a “soup to nuts” review of the SNAP program, which is the main component of the Farm Bill Nutrition Title.

Outside of the government, other reviews of SNAP are taking place, including the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) which has pulled together a committee to review the program. The report is due to be released on March 12, 2018.

NPC will continue to participate in the SNAP coalition and promote to members of Congress and the administration the benefits of all potato products being a part of SNAP.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA)

The DGAs are updated every five years offering nutrition advice for people aged two and over and forming the basis for federal policy for nutrition and feeding programs. The 2020 DGA process will, for the first time make recommendations for children under 2 years of age and pregnant and lactating mothers, as directed by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Given concerns over the current DGA process, in 2016 Congress directed the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to review the DGA process. The reports released in 2017 identified key recommendations for the guidelines development process including: 1. enhance transparency; 2. promote diversity of expertise and experience among reviewers; 3. support a deliberative process; 4. manage biases and conflicts of interest of reviewers; 5. adopt state-of-the-art processes and methods; and, 6. support any further recommendations to amend the process to increase transparency and scientific rigor such as prioritizing topic areas and adding additional opportunities for public comment.

In November, the USDA invited select members of academia, industry, commodity organizations and public health/consumer advocates to provide comment on the reports and the Birth-to-24-Month Project (B24/P) project. NPC provided comments focused on general support of the NASEM recommendations and warned that moving forward with recommendations that are not scientifically sound could be a danger to public health. It is expected that the USDA will release a Request for Information (RFI) regarding prioritization of topics in the new year. This will begin the DGA 2020 process.

At the kickoff DGA 2020 listening sessions held by USDA in November, NPC testified on several issues impacting the potato industry that should be addressed as the process moves forward. Throughout the 2020 DGA process NPC will work to promote the benefits of potatoes and share relevant Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE) information with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) and the administration.

The 2020 DGA process, which is significantly delayed at this point, is expected to progress soon. There are indications that the next steps will include the USDA accepting comments regarding prioritization of topics and, potentially, DGAC nominations. These RFIs could happen simultaneously or one after the other. If separately, it would be expected that topic prioritization would happen before committee nominations. It is also expected that short comment periods will be offered, due to the vast delay in the process to this point.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization/Woman Infants and Children (WIC)/School Meals

The Child Nutrition and National School Lunch Acts authorizes, on a five-year basis, all of the federal child nutrition programs including the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, the Special Supplemental Program for Woman Infants and Children, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Programs. While the previous Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), titled the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), expired in 2015, the programs continue to run on autopilot. HHFKA requires USDA to review, but not necessarily update, the WIC food packages every 10 years. To that end, USDA asked the NASEM to review and provide recommended changes by 2017. USDA has the NASEM recommendations but given the lack of pressure to update the food package, as well as other administration priorities, an update to the WIC food package this year is unlikely.

One of Secretary of Agriculture Perdue’s first official actions was an announcement on modifications and flexibilities to school meal standards. These include a delay in the target II sodium requirements, increased flexibility for whole grain standards by allowing schools to request waivers and allowing schools to serve one percent flavored milk. Secretary Perdue also stated that the department is considering additional long-term solutions. Comments on these three standards were accepted by the USDA and a final rule is expected before year’s end.

Given the public health community backlash on any change to school meal standards, no change will be easy, but USDA is looking for ways to work with groups to further improve the school meals programs. To that end, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) announced, in December 2017, a RFI to better understand how to improve food crediting and federal reimbursement in Child Nutrition Programs that include National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The RFI provided stakeholders with a list of 25 questions for comment on how foods should be credited (e.g., food-based or nutrient-based) for inclusion in the school meals programs. FNS is specifically interested in understanding both the possible benefits and any negative impacts associated with potential changes to how certain foods are credited.

The RFI gave NPC the opportunity to demonstrate that the current regulations for school breakfast inappropriately provide fewer opportunities for potatoes to be served. NPC, along with a coalition of other industry stakeholders, submitted an extension request to allow more time to develop substantive comments to this request for information. NPC filed comments and is hopeful that the agency will continue to be open to collecting more information on this matter. After the February 12 close of comments USDA announced a 60-day extension of the comment period. Additionally, NPC held a meeting with USDA officials within the Secretary’s office on the issues potatoes face in these programs due to outdated rules. NPC is also conducting a survey of school food service directors to determine how often potatoes are served, how much plate waste is observed when other vegetables are served versus potatoes, and how including potatoes on school breakfast menus could lower the cost of serving healthy vegetables in the program.

NPC will continue to work to educate members of Congress and the administration on the benefits of potatoes as well as seek to expand opportunities for potatoes to be served in school meals programs.