Farm Bill Bans Advertising for Food Stamps

A provision in the massive 2014 farm bill bans advertising or recruiting in connection with the food stamps program, though the details of how that actually will be implemented will be left up to the Department of Agriculture.

In addition, the bill, set to be signed Friday by President Barack Obama, will bar agreements with foreign countries to promote the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program within their borders. That ends an arrangement with Mexico put in place during the George W. Bush administration that was intended to inform Mexican Americans and eligible Mexican nationals in the United States about benefits under SNAP and 14 other nutrition programs.

And the bill (HR 2642) puts numerous other limits or requirements on the nation’s largest domestic food aid program for poor people, including an end to cash refunds on large bottle deposits. Retailers say that some recipients would use their benefits to buy very large bottles of milk or water, dump out the contents and return to get a $4 or $7 cash deposit back from the store.

After Obama signs the farm bill in a ceremony at Michigan State University in East Lansing, the USDA will shoulder the task of deciphering and putting in place the legislation.

State directors responsible for running SNAP will look to the department for clarity on the provisions in the legislation that end advertising for the program or recruiting people who might be eligible. Some lawmakers believe these efforts contributed to fraud and the record growth of the program.

More than 47 million people – nearly one in seven U.S. residents – rely to some extent on SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Supporters of the program say the recession of 2008 and not advertising fueled SNAP’s growth.

But what exactly is advertising? SNAP state directors consider details they provide about the program to be information, not advertising, Larry Goolsby of the American Public Human Services Association said.

“We have always tried to make sure accurate information is out there about the program, with details on how to apply,” said Goolsby, the association’s director of strategic initiatives.

The definition of what constitutes advertising “would have to be something that is much more aggressive,” he said.

“The statutory language doesn’t seem to clearly map that out. This may be like many provisions that have to be clarified when the regulation comes out. We just won’t know until we see what those are and see what the details are,” Goolsby said.

Goolsby said that so far his members have not voiced concerns, but he said they may be waiting until the USDA eventually issues draft regulations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday the farm bill language on SNAP advertising would be reviewed, but that he believes “we’ll be able to do appropriate outreach. We’ll find a creative way to make sure people know about the program. I don’t want to go back to the days when only 50 percent of the eligible people were getting the benefits. We’re now at 80 percent of eligible people getting benefits ” because of greater outreach.

The farm bill is clearer in its directive that states cannot make agreements with foreign countries to promote SNAP and that the Agriculture Department must end an arrangement with the Mexican government to inform Mexican Americans and eligible Mexican nationals in the United States about food stamps.

Bush began the U.S.-Mexico Partnership for Nutrition Assistance Initiative in 2004 and the Obama administration continued the arrangement that distributes SNAP information through the network of Mexican consulates in the United States.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans cited the program’s continued existence and accused the Obama administration of encouraging illegal immigrants to sign up for benefits, although the partnership is aimed at legal immigrants in the United States.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to voice mails asking about the farm bill provisions.

Most of the public and media attention has focused on language on changes to a utility credit that states use in determining how much enrollees receive in monthly SNAP benefits. People will have to receive at least $20 in a year from a state for heating or cooling costs in order to claim the deduction, up from a nominal $1 per year that 17 states and the District of Columbia distributed to trigger the deduction.

Critics said states artificially boosted benefits and provided utility deductions to some people who had no heating or cooling expenses. The higher threshold could reduce monthly benefits by $90 for 850,000 households, or 1.7 million people, but the number of people affected could be lower if, as expected, some states decide to increase payments to meet the higher requirement.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the change would reduce SNAP spending by $8.6 billion over 10 years, a net $8 billion in savings after factoring in increased funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides commodities to food banks and food pantries, and programs that give SNAP beneficiaries more buying power at farmers markets.

Still, the anti-hunger organization Food Research and Action Center decried the cuts and on Tuesday a man in the audience at a PolicyLink anti-poverty event challenged Vilsack on the farm bill.

“Why would we pass a farm bill that has substantive cuts to SNAP?” he asked.

Vilsack replied, “Congress is essentially suggesting that the SNAP program needs to be for people who need the SNAP program. It just puts the onus and burden on us at USDA to do an ever-increasing and better job of outreach to those folks so that those who are eligible are still able to apply and get benefits.”

He added, “I think there are ways to handle the people who truly need help.”

After the Senate voted 68-32 to adopt the farm bill conference report, Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said she had achieved her goal to rebuff more damaging changes that would have restricted SNAP eligibility and removed nearly 4 million Americans from the program in fiscal 2014. Stabenow, D-Mich., also fended off House proposals to limit food benefits to 90 days out of every three years in areas of high unemployment for single able-bodied adults age 50 and younger.

Stabenow said she addressed areas of fraud and abuse such as denying lottery jackpot winners continued SNAP benefits, requiring participating retailers to buy equipment that will allow electronic tracking of SNAP use, and requiring that the USDA conduct at least one pilot project to reduce retailer fraud in a large urban area that administers the SNAP program.

The bill also would require participating stores provide a minimum selection of seven types each of dairy, bread or cereals; meat, poultry or fish; and fruits or vegetables. Three of the four types of food must be refrigerated, frozen or fresh.

The Food and Nutrition Service has found more frequent occurrences of fraud at participating retailers who carry a nominal 12 items of food.

The farm bill also contains what appears to be a curious requirement – retailers will no longer be able to give SNAP beneficiaries cash refunds on large bottle deposits.

Hannah Walker, a lobbyist for the Food Marketing Institute which represents grocery and convenience stores, said some boutique milk bottles and large water bottles for coolers carried deposits ranging from $4 to $7.

“People would come in, buy it and go out and dump it then come back to get their $4 deposit back [in cash] from the retailer,” Walker said. “That was cash back from the deposit that EBT was paying for. Now if you buy that boutique milk the EBT will pay for the $3 milk and you have to pay cash for the $4 deposit,” she said, referring to the electronic benefit transfer cards that are issued to recipients.

Walker called it a “very unique and creative idea on someone’s part to figure out how to get cash.”

The “depth of stock” requirement of more products for stores that are not full food retailers makes “a retailer more committed to selling actual food items,” Walker said.

Farm bill report language drills down to even finer detail on SNAP. States that still disburse SNAP benefits just one or two days of the month are encouraged to spread out the distribution dates. Report language, though, is not binding. Retailers favor the change because many SNAP recipients buy out all the stock in the first three days of the month.

“That is a huge challenge for a retailer when they have a shopping day on the first, second or third,” Walker said. “USDA will work with the states. There is no mandate for the states to do this but there is great encouragement from Congress and FNS [the Food and Nutrition Service].”