GOP Food Stamp Bill Includes $125 Million to Fight Food Deserts

Bill also orders agriculture secretary to examine health benefits of white potatoes

September 23, 2013

The House Republican bill to reduce food stamp spending also creates a $125 million program to combat food deserts and orders the agriculture secretary to "review the public health benefits of white potatoes."

H.R. 3102, which narrowly passed 217-210 on Thursday, was the subject of scorn from Democrats due to $3.9 billion in cuts per year over the next ten years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.  The cuts to a program that now spends $88.6 billion annually.

All but 15 Republicans voted for the bill, and Democrats were unanimously opposed.

Tucked into the bill are several provisions that increase spending, including $125 million to reduce food deserts and over $60 million to expand a farmers’ market program.

Section 307 creates a "Healthy Food Financing" initiative, which will pay for the expansion of food retailers in low-income areas.

"The purpose of this section is to enhance the authorities of the Secretary to support efforts to provide access to healthy food by establishing an initiative to improve access to healthy foods in underserved areas," the bill states.

The section allocates $125 million in loans and grants to encourage groceries and markets to open in low-income communities.  The bill says the program will "create and preserve quality jobs."

Priority will be given to "women or minority-owned businesses," and retailers will be required to accept food stamp benefits.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food."

"Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options," the USDA said.

The provision arose out of an amendment offered by two Democrats, Reps. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) and Marcia Fudge (Ohio), which passed during committee mark up of the bill.  Schwartz touted the initiative as expanding investment in "food deserts."

Rep. David Schweikert (R., Ariz.) attempted to have the program stripped from the bill, but his amendment failed on a 194-232 vote.  Thirty-seven Republicans voted to keep the measure.

The bill also maintains funding for a "Farmers’ Market Nutrition" program, totaling $61.8 million over three years.

Section 301 amends a USDA program for seniors, which gives coupons to be used at farmers’ markets, to include low-income families who are deemed "at nutritional risk."  $20.6 million will be awarded in each fiscal year from 2014 to 2016.

Another clause orders the study of the health benefits of white potatoes.

"The Secretary shall conduct a review of the economic and public health benefits of white potatoes on low-income families who are determined to be at nutritional risk," Section 306 states.  This provision also originated as an amendment, offered by Rep. Reid Ribble (R., Wis.).

The final section of the bill seeks to increase the purchase of Kosher and Halal food in the emergency food assistance program.