Lawmakers in Iowa have proposed limiting food stamps purchases to what can currently be bought with WIC benefits. This is a huge change that would completely transform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in that state. If you rely on these benefits to feed your family, you need to know about this.
Many of our readers and YouTube subscribers have reached out to ask us about these changes, because they are worried about the impact these proposals could have on their families. After all, the WIC food list is very restricted and it isn’t really realistic for many low income families.
Let’s talk about what is being proposed, whether or not a state even has the authority to do this, and what you can do to stop it from happening.
Iowa lawmakers want to restrict food stamps purchases.
In Iowa, legislators have proposed that SNAP purchases be limited to match the foods currently approved by WIC. This is a huge change because WIC is way more restrictive about what kinds of foods you can buy.
The WIC-approved food list includes:
- Breakfast cereal (including corn flakes, oatmeal, grits and cream of wheat)
- Canned fish
- Formula & baby food
- Fruits and vegetables
- Peanut Butter
- Whole wheat bread (including bread, buns, rolls, rice, oats, barley, tortillas and macaroni)
- Whole grains
The rules are intense and specific. For example, WIC covers legumes but only mature legumes defined as dry beans and peas. According to USDA, you can buy dry or canned beans such as black beans, white beans, lima beans, and even refried beans. However, you cannot buy baked beans unless you have limited cooking facilities. Any beans you buy must meet specific limitations on sugar, fats, oils, meat, fruit, or vegetables, and they must also meet sodium limits.
This would be a huge change from how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program currently works. Right now, users receive a certain amount of money every month on an EBT card. Those funds can be used to purchase any food for human consumption, as long as it means food stamps guidelines.
The current SNAP guidelines allow you to buy:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Meat, poultry, and fish
- Dairy products
- Breads and cereals
- Snack foods
- Non-alcoholic beverages
- Seeds and produce-bearing plants
The current food stamps law doesn’t restrict much. You typically can’t buy hot food and you can never buy alcohol. You can buy live shellfish, but you can’t buy other live animals. Other than that, you’re typically able to buy any food products at the grocery store.
Restricting food stamps is dangerous.
This is a dangerous proposal for low income families who rely on food stamps to eat. Restricting SNAP purchases like this could pose safety hazards, health hazards, and could cause more low income people to go hungry.
According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, about 1 in 3 SNAP households include a senior or person with a disability. Older and disabled adults may not be able to safely prepare meals on their own, so forcing these people to follow WIC guidelines would be downright dangerous.
Even health advocates have spoken out against this change. According to the Iowa Capital Dispatch, “Advocates and disabled Iowans told legislators Thursday that the list of approved foods in Iowa’s WIC program were tailored to meet the needs of pregnant women and children in early development — but that these restrictions are not necessarily healthy to apply universally.”
Restricting SNAP benefits so that they can only be used to purchase WIC-eligible items would remove entire categories from the diets of low income Americans. WIC does not authorize the purchase of any meat products except canned fish. Numerous sties have shown that low income Americans are more likely to experience severe anemia than wealthier households. SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase vitamins and supplements (including iron), so removing the ability to use those benefits to purchase red meat would restrict one of the few remaining ways for low income families to obtain that needed nutrient.
These restrictions also do not take into account any dietary adjustments that may be required due to food allergies or sensitivities. Some people simply can’t eat certain foods, and forcing them to abide by a restricted list could drastically impact their diets.
This change would also prevent low income households from buying butter, flour and other essential baking ingredients. Many low income households buy staple ingredients like flour so they can bake and stretch their budgets farther.
These changes also put low income families at risk during times of disaster, shortages or supply chain disruptions, because the very specific list of eligible products may not be available at all times. Allowing people to buy a wide variety of food protects their ability to buy food even when they live in areas with few options for groceries. Restricting what they can buy only makes it harder for people to get the food they need to survive.
Other proposed changes would kick people off SNAP.
Iowa is also trying to reduce the asset limits for the program in order to limit how many people qualify for food assistance. It appears that the asset limit would automatically exclude any two-car households, even if the family lives rurally and needs two vehicles in order to maintain their jobs. Additionally, the program would also require SNAP participants and Medicare recipients to work at least 20 hours a week in order to receive benefits, according to Time.
As the Iowa Hunger Coalition stated, “This policy would keep Iowans stuck in poverty, not help them out.”
Why is Iowa doing this?
Iowa lawmakers claim they want to promote healthy choices, reduce fraud, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely. They also claim they want to reduce government spending.
However, these claims don’t really hold up under scrutiny for several reasons.
First of all, the argument that these changes are necessary to control spending doesn’t really make sense. Iowa’s SNAP enrollment is at a 14-year low. Iowa reported a $2 billion budget surplus last year and immediately lowered taxes for big businesses. The state plans to dish out $345 million per year in handouts for children attending private schools, even if those children come from wealthy families. And even the new food stamps proposal includes an additional $1 million for the Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows you to get twice as much food at Farmers Markets.
It will also be very expensive to implement these changes, since the government will have to categorize a lot of existing food products (and new food products every year). The state would have to study the changes, find a way to implement the changes, and figure out how to handle interstate enforcement since EBT benefits can be used in other states. It’s a logistical nightmare that would require a lot of government oversight.
Given how much it will cost the government to implement these changes and how much extra money the state has, it appears that the issue in Iowa isn’t so much about money as it is the rights of low income Americans.
Can Iowa do this?
Thankfully, this isn’t playing out very well. After pushback, lawmakers promised to remove these restrictions and just restrict SNAP from being used for candy or soda pop instead. However, there’s no indication that the change has actually been made yet. The official name for this proposal is House File 3. A subcommittee voted 2-1 to pass it, so it is now waiting for a committee vote.
There’s a lot of procedural stuff that has to happen before House File 3 could become a law, and even if it does pass all those hurdles, the Iowa state government can only ask USDA to authorize a waiver. Ultimately, it’s the federal USDA that would have to decide whether or not Iowa can do this.
Many states have tried but all have failed.
Iowa would not be the first state to try this. Minnesota tried to stop people from buying “junk food” with SNAP in 2004. Maine tried to block candy and soda from the SNAP program in 2015 and 2017. New York City requested a similar waiver in 2011.
When Maine submitted their request in 2017, the USDA didn’t deny their waiver right off the bat. First, they demanded a lot of information about the timeframe, procedures, data gathering procedures and costs involved in implementing these changes.
Even though waivers have been requested several times, the USDA has never approved a single one. The food stamps program is too large and it is just too complicated to allow states and cities to make their own decisions on this. The New York Times quoted a letter from a USDA administrator to a New York State official that says the experiment is “too large and complex” to implement or evaluate.
However, since all the information I found on this is over a decade old, I reached out to the USDA for clarification. I spoke with Sandra Macmartin, a Public Affairs Specialist with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. This is what she said:
“Items eligible for SNAP purchase are defined by the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 and Federal regulations. Therefore, states do not have authority to independently restrict foods that can be purchased with SNAP. A demonstration waiver approval from the Food and Nutrition Act is required to prohibit food items at the state level.Sandra MacMartin, Public Affairs Specialist for USDA
Demonstration waivers have been requested by Minnesota in 2004, New York in 2011, and Maine in 2015. Minnesota’s request was to prohibit using SNAP benefits to purchase candy and soft drinks taxed under state law. New York’s request was to prohibit using SNAP benefits to purchase soda and other sugary drinks. Maine’s request was to prohibit using SNAP benefits to purchase candy and soda. To date, no such demonstration waiver request has been approved by FNS.”
Now, I assume one of the reasons that the USDA has never authorized anything like this is because it’s so complicated. After all, food stamps is a nationwide program and you can use your EBT card in other states.
If Iowa got approval to limit Iowa EBT users so they can only purchase WIC-approved items, how would that work in the big picture? Would Iowa shoppers be able to buy non-WIC items if they shopped in neighboring states like Illinois or Missouri? Would Illinois shoppers who use EBT be able to shop normally at Iowa stores, or would they also be limited to WIC-approved items even though their state doesn’t have that limitation? When you start thinking about the big picture, changes like this unravel very quickly.
As Sandra at the USDA said, the state’s waiver request would have to include a plan for handling cross-border shoppers. I haven’t seen any proposal or suggestions from any Iowa lawmakers about how this should be handled.
Watch out! We still need your help.
Unfortunately, the drama about SNAP benefits in Iowa is playing out at the same time that our federal lawmakers are debating the 2023 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that has to be passed every five years. It governs the food stamps program, as well as a variety of other nutrition programs. It’s very important to the security of low income Americans.
Even if Iowa’s proposed changes fail, there is still some pressure at the federal level to make similar cuts to the Farm Bill. This legislation governs how the program works nationwide, so they wouldn’t have to worry about details like cross-border shoppers.
In order to protect your benefits, make sure you reach out to your local lawmakers and encourage them to protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from any changes or restrictions. We have a sample letter you can use and instructions on how to contact your local lawmakers in this guide to protecting food benefits.