[Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part special series for The Gazette. Coming Monday: Solutions needed to increase program benefits]
DES MOINES — About 30 minutes into her presentation for the World Food Prize Hunger Week symposium in October, Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks dropped a fascinating statistic.
“The No. 1 food item bought with food stamps in Iowa is Mountain Dew,” said Miller-Meeks, director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Several in the audience of a few hundred — an international crowd of academics, journalists and not-for-profit types — shook their heads or smiled with bemusement. Phones came out, tweets were sent.
But what Miller-Meeks said wasn’t true.
At least not in any verifiable way. The Iowa Department of Human Services — the state agency that oversees the food stamp program, correctly called Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, in Iowa — doesn’t track food purchases down to the brand of soft drink. Asked where she came up with the statistic, Miller-Meeks later said through a spokesman she “found it online” but couldn’t remember where.
Still, the quip fit into a narrative about waste in the food aid program that has gained credence here and in Washington, D.C., where lawmakers aren’t discussing if they’ll cut SNAP, but by how much.
“To an extent, ideology is driving the discussion instead of data,” said Matt Russell, state food policy project coordinator at Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center. “Cuts sound logical, but when you peel it back and see who these folks that aren’t working — they’re seniors and kids — it seems kind of Draconian.”
It’s a discussion that worries many experts who study food and hunger issues.
“Dr. Miller-Meeks says the point she was trying to make was more about nutritional standards than food benefit abuses,” spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm said in an email. “She regrets that she miscommunicated the information and as a result, deflected attention away from her message about the importance of making healthy eating and good nutrition a personal and governmental priority.”
SNAP programs are federally funded and authorized in the farm bill but administered by the states. The benefit runs about $80 billion a year, with the maximum benefit roughly $526 for a family of three per month.
In Iowa, both enrollment and money spent has risen each fiscal year for the past five years. Enrollment has risen by nearly 100,000 from 324,758 in 2009 to 422,639 in 2013.
Dollars spent rose from $417,154,902 to 587,245,363 over the same period.
The trends here mirror trends nationwide, leading some, such as U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, to call the program “bloated.”
He and U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Clive, voted with all but 15 House Republicans in September to cut $40 billion from the SNAP appropriation over the next 10 years. The House Democrats unanimously opposed the bill.
The Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate voted earlier in the year to cut $4 billion from the program over 10 years. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, both voted for the legislation.
Grassely, a farmer from New Hartford, took a jab at some of his colleagues in a Dec. 5 essay published in Politico.
“It seems some members want to reduce food stamps while reopening loopholes for multimillion-dollar farming entities,” he wrote. “There’s bipartisan agreement that the food-stamp program needs reform, but how can we save money in one program and at the same time turn a blind eye to the loopholes that millionaires exploit?”
The farm bill, however, couldn’t be solved before Congress left for its winter break. News organizations in D.C. have reported farm bill negotiators agreed to an $8.5 billion cut in food programs when negotiations pick up again in 2014.
That’s on top of a $5.5 billion cut that took effect on Nov. 1 due to the expiration of a temporary provision of the 2009 stimulus law.
In Iowa, it’s estimated the cut will be about $29 per month for that family of three, bringing them under $500 per month. For an individual, the effect is about $11 monthly for the person receiving the maximum $200 per month.
“I think partly it’s because people just want to reduce the deficit,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and a World Food Prize laureate. Bread for the World is a national Christian organization that lobbies on food policy.
“Democrats don’t want to touch Medicaid or Social Security. Republicans don’t want to touch corporate benefits,” he said.
“So who do you have supporting food programs? It’s just a bunch of church groups.”
King’s office requested questions in writing for this story and after receiving them via email, declined to comment.
Russell, the Drake University professor, took the stage at the World Food Prize event right after Miller-Meeks.
Asked about people buying soft drinks with SNAP benefits, Russell said studies show that given the opportunity to purchase fresher, healthier foods, SNAP recipients do in roughly the same percentages as non-SNAP users. It’s just that for some people, the local convenience store serves as the supermarket, he said.
“You know, I had arrived after (Miller-Meeks) spoke, so I didn’t know I was giving a counterpoint to her point, even though I think that’s how it kind of came off,” he says.
At roughly $1.40 a meal, Russell said, the SNAP program is one of the most-efficient run by the federal government — not that its critics agree.
“SNAP is vulnerable because the beneficiaries are the most vulnerable in the United States — the seniors, the children and the working poor,” he said. “It is difficult to organize them into a political force.”
He, as with Beckmann, is concerned about what deeper cuts to the program mean.
“The average SNAP benefit is $1.40 a meal. That’s not enough to feed your family,” Beckmann said.
“People use SNAP to keep body and soul together. That they’re somehow lying around in hammocks eating bonbons, it’s not credible to me.”
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The chart below shows federal SNAP appropriation this fiscal year and how it compares, over time, to the last five fiscal years in Iowa
SNAP Benefits Spent
FY2013 — $587,245,363
FY2012 — $589,784,976
FY2011 — $566,705,903
FY2010 — $524,916,080
FY2009 — $417,154,902
This chart shows the portion of the SNAP program that pays for administering it in Iowa
FY2013 — $25,534,054
FY2012 — $25,178,494
FY2011 — $24,421,054
FY2010 — $24,044,254
FY2009 — $22,077,600
This chart shows how many people are enrolled in the SNAP program in Iowa. Officials estimate about 80 to 85 percent of people who qualify for SNAP receive at least some level of benefit.
Enrollment in SNAP
09/13 — 422,639
10/12 — 419,315
10/11 — 398,574
10/10 — 352,981
10/09 — 324,758
Sources: Iowa Department of Human Services