Policy wonks could say that they have been thrilled these past two weeks. Congress spent a great deal of time dealing with specific issues related to nutrition standards, and finished with a historic joint committee hearing that focused on the interplay between the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other public assistance programs with the consequences of getting a job, or one that pays more.
But while policy wonks may have been thrilled, those who operate or benefit from these programs have reasons to be concerned. Where might all of this be heading? What might be the final action taken by the Appropriators? What will happen with Child Nutrition Reauthorization? Is there a likelihood that SNAP and other programs will be reformed as a new round of welfare reform? What will be done before the fiscal year ends?
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies has reported a bill which includes several limitations that are gaining wide-spread attention. The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to take up this bill following the July 4th recess.
- The bill delays FDA’s final rule on menu labeling until no earlier than December 1, 2016.
- This bill (as does the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies bill) restricts funding for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans so that these guidelines are based on scientific evidence rated “Grade I: Strong”, and limited in scope to only matters of diet and nutrition intake;
- The Senate Labor-HHS bill also prohibits the 2015 Dietary Guidelines from moving forward unless they are solely nutritional and dietary in nature, but requires that the standards be based on a preponderance of scientific evidence.
- The draft report calls upon FDA, in coordination with CDC, to convene a panel at the IOM to determine the blood pressure effect and Cardiovascular Disease implications for healthy people consuming sodium at 3000 mg or less per day.
- The draft report also contains four directives to FDA related to further action on trans fats. The bill continues two provisions included in the FY 2015 Act. One allows through school year 2016-2017 an exemption from whole grain requirements in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The second prohibits sodium reductions beyond the Target I level until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee held two hearings in anticipation of the reauthorization of Child Nutrition Programs, including National School Lunch and School Breakfast, along with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. Current authority for many of these programs expires on September 30, 2015. The first hearing with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack focused on USDA’s implementation of the revised meal standards, and concerns related to those standards. The second hearing examined the cost of compliance for states and schools. Many members and witnesses called for greater flexibility in how to meet the requirements of these programs.
The Subcommittee on Nutrition of the House Agriculture Committee has held several hearings this year looking into the SNAP, with the goal being a top-to-bottom review of the program. This Subcommittee joined with the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Ways & Means Committee for their first-ever joint hearing entitled “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP: How Our Welfare System Can Discourage Work”. The hearing looked at the total levels of assistance provided to eligible individuals from SNAP, TANF, and other assistance programs, and how quickly recipients lose benefits when either taking a job or when getting a wage increase. Some witnesses suggested a greater need for flexibility to blend benefits to meet individual needs, while others expressed concerns that if these programs are converted to a block grant, it could mean less assistance to people and significant differences from one state to another.
There are only 29 legislative days on the House Calendar and 34 legislative days on the Senate Calendar before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, with much to do. Stay tuned and stay involved.