People shop at a supermarket in Montebello, California, on August 23, 2022. Credit - FREDERIC J. BROWN—AFP/Getty Images
Iowa House Republicans drafted House File 3 this month—a bill that proposes strict limitations on what food items SNAP recipients could use their benefits to buy—including white bread, fresh meat and sliced cheese. Many believe the new bill would inflict unnecessary financial strain on Iowa’s most vulnerable communities.
The bill, which 39 Republicans co-sponsored, would require SNAP recipients to have a more restrictive list of food items they can buy that would mirror the foods approved for the state’s current Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC). It would also require an asset limit on SNAP participants and Medicare recipients would need to work at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits.
House File 3 is getting substantial pushback from state Democrats and hunger advocacy groups who argue that the bill will negatively affect those that are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food and still reeling from inflation and job loss brought by the pandemic.
“I’ve been telling legislators in the state of Iowa, we have food banks and food pantries that are breaking records in terms of the number of people that are turning to them for assistance,” Luke Elzinga, chair of the Iowa Hunger Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable food policy, tells TIME. “At the same time, the number of Iowans enrolled in SNAP is actually at a 14-year low.”
“That tells me the state needs to be doing more to make sure SNAP is accessible for people facing food insecurity, and House File 3 seems to be headed in the opposite direction,” he adds.
Restrictions in House File 3
SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the largest federal program that helps low-income Americans pay for food through set monthly budgets that they can redeem at grocery stores.
The restrictive food list proposed in House File 3 was copied from WIC, which was created to help maternity and early childhood health. Some experts argue that the WIC diet isn’t fitting for everyone enrolled in SNAP because of the broad range of demographics.
“If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, postpartum, an infant or child under five, you have very specific nutritional needs,” Lauren Au, a professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis who researches nutrition policy, tells TIME.
Au adds that SNAP provides “such a small amount of funding for food.” As supplemental nutrition assistance, it’s not designed to be a household’s only source of food, so it shouldn’t be treated as such by the policy.
With the WIC restrictions, Iowan SNAP recipients wouldn’t be able to buy things like non-whole grains, fresh meat, spices, oil, canned fruits or vegetables and other kitchen staples.
“If you’re living in poverty and using a program—and there’s already so much stigma around SNAP—to then be told, ‘we’re going to police the food that you can get,” is incredibly damaging to people’s mental health,” Elzinga says.
He says that the restrictions don’t take into account food allergies, medical conditions that require a specific diet, religious limitations or cultural preferences. “I know a woman with an eating disorder that’s on SNAP,” Elzinga says. He adds how triggering restrictive eating is for some people.
“You can get 100% whole wheat pasta, but not rice noodles. There’s brown rice, but no white rice,” Elzinga says.
The asset restrictions in House File 3 would mean families who have $2,750 – $4,250 in assets or savings would no longer be eligible for any benefits, which critics say discourages people from growing their savings. It would particularly affect households who own more than one car, which is common in rural areas with poor public transportation, and in large families.
Au says the comparison of ability to acquire food compared to what assets a person owns doesn’t consider that “there’s so much more of a story there that you may not know.”
On the flip side, the bill appropriates $1 million to the state’s Double Up Food Bucks program, which incentivizes SNAP recipients to get more fruits and vegetables. Elzinga’s coalition supports this funding, but wants it in a separate bill without the WIC and asset restrictions.
The legislature’s reasoning
Sami Scheetz, the freshman Democratic representative for Iowa’s 78th district, is a vocal opponent of House File 3, or as he calls it, a “truly terrible bill.”
“Iowans have been struggling for years now. First, the pandemic destroyed our economy, and still to this day we have record high inflation we haven’t seen in 40 years that’s been driving up the cost of basic things like food and gas,” Scheetz tells TIME. “To make it harder and more restrictive for people to get the basic things they need for them and their families to survive… it’s wrong.”
According to House Republicans, the proposal—currently being discussed in subcommittees—would help cut costs. “It’s these entitlement programs. They’re the ones that are growing within the budget and are putting pressure on us being able to fund other priorities,” House Speaker Pat Grassley told KCCI, a Des Moines news outlet.
In September, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds proudly announced that the state had a surplus budget of $1.91 billion—a far cry from Grassley’s penny-pinching rhetoric.
Scheetz counters that it’s the federal government, not Iowa, who pays for 100% of SNAP’s food assistance costs. The federal and state governments split SNAP’s administrative costs 50/50, so all the administrative work it would take to implement the bill would theoretically only increase costs for Iowa, according to Elzinga.
SNAP administrative costs in Iowa have been fairly consistent for more than a decade, another reason it’s unusual that the program is being targeted to cut costs. In 2009, Iowa spent $24,690,105—compared to 2020 when the state spent $22,355,466—according to data from Iowa Hunger Coalition.
“Not only is it wrong on a philosophical and moral level, this is bad for Iowa agriculture today,” Scheetz says. Iowa is one of the nation’s leading states for agricultural production, ranking first place in the sale of corn, soy and pork.
Of Iowa’s 55 major lobbying groups, 22 groups are publicly against the bill including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Save the Children Action Network and Tyson Foods. 31 groups are undecided and only two groups support the bill.
House File 3’s future
Over the years, federal policymakers and other states have floated similar ideas to restrict certain foods from SNAP benefits, but the legislation rarely passes because research shows that it tends to hurt SNAP recipients, financially and healthwise.
The United States Agriculture Department (USDA) oversees SNAP and has to approve all changes. Elzinga explains that the USDA is stern when it comes to SNAP, like in both 2015 and 2018 when Maine’s attempts to ban soda and candy from its SNAP food list were denied. He predicts that the department most likely won’t approve House File 3 even if it gets off the General Assembly floor.
“I think the message that this bill sends to low-income Iowans is that the state does not trust you to make your own food choices for your family,” Elzinga says. “It’s reinforcing a false narrative that poor people on public assistance programs are scamming the government, and that’s just not the reality.”
Correction, Jan. 21
The original version of this story misquoted Sami Scheetz on how long it has been since Iowa has seen inflation this high. It is 40 years, not 14.