Lawmakers advance proposed SNAP changes but say they’ll drop plans to restrict some foods

By: - January 26, 2023 4:42 pm

Iowa legislators are proposing new restrictions on Iowa's SNAP and Medicaid programs. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Legislation to stop Iowans from using SNAP benefits to buy products like fresh meat, butter, sliced cheese and bagged salads advanced Thursday despite controversy that made national news this week.

After hearing Iowans’ concerns at a meeting Thursday, members of the House Health and Human Services subcommittee said they planned to amend the proposal to remove most of those restrictions. The Republican lawmakers still voted to advance the legislation for committee consideration, despite numerous concerns speakers raised about other aspects of the proposal.

In its current form, House File 3 would require food bought with Iowa Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards to match approved foods listed in Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) program. 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.

Journey Berzett, a 21-year-old Iowan with a disability, said the proposed restrictions would make her life demonstrably harder. Because of her disability, she cannot use her hands to cut up a block of cheese or a head of lettuce, Berzett said, and she does not have income outside of SNAP benefits to pay for additional groceries.

“I don’t think these are the types of things that supporters of HF 3 have even thought of,” Berzett said. “But I have. I have to. I have no choice.”

Rep. Thomas Jeneary, R-Le Mars, said the SNAP food restrictions will be amended out of the legislation in committee, but Democratic Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell said that amendment has not been shared.

Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge, said the amendment will remove SNAP eligibility for purchases of candy and soda with sugar. “We talked about healthy eating,” Meyer said. “You can’t point anything out of those two items that are healthy.”

Advocates voiced concerns about other changes to Iowa’s public assistance programs laid out in the legislation outside of the WIC food limitations. The bill proposes new asset restrictions on Iowans who receive SNAP and Medicaid benefits. It also would require Medicaid recipients work 20 hours a week as well as implement new identity verification procedures.

Lobbyists representing groups including the Iowa Food Bank Association, Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Des Moines Area Religious Council said these proposals would not only create administrative burdens for the state government and those helping Iowans in need, but also could keep people who need help through public assistance programs from getting that aid.

The asset tests would keep poor Iowans from getting benefits if they have more than one car, which advocates said was unrealistic for households with multiple people who work or have children. The 20-hour-a-week work requirement is unrealistic, advocates said, for people who need Medicaid to  treat illnesses so they can work in the future.

Meyer said she agrees the targeted programs are important safety nets to help people out of poverty. The legislation is meant to ensure both that people in need continue to get SNAP and Medicaid benefits, but that those who aren’t eligible cannot access the programs’ funds.

“They’re all your tax dollars,” Meyer said. “We want to make sure that we’re giving them to the right people.”

Tyler Raygor with Americans for Prosperity said he understood other speakers’ concerns about the program cutting off people in need, but said everyone needs to remember that Iowa is working with “finite taxpayer dollars.”

Others, including Leslie Carpenter with Iowa Mental Health Advocacy, said this framing was disingenuous. Iowa reported a nearly $2 billion budget surplus in fiscal year 2022.

“I want to say thank you for being concerned about protecting those fees,” Carpenter said. “I would say that our ability to support that is not finite. We do have excess income in our state and every one of us in this room knows it.”

The legislation will next be discussed in the House Health and Human Services Committee, where it can be amended.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.