We Asked Policy Experts How Jeff Sessions Could Dismantle America's Food Stamp Programs

As attorney general, Sessions will have a huge platform upon which to influence the federal food stamp program, officially known as SNAP.

Jan 10 2017, 11:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Today, the Senate begins its confirmation hearings of Donald Trump's picks for his cabinet, and first up is Jeff Sessions, the wildly polarizing attorney general nominee. Sessions, currently the junior US senator from Alabama, is being questioned on loads of hot topics, including civil rights, LGBT rights, immigration, and abortion. Amid intermittent interruption from protesters—some of whom have donned KKK costumes—the hearings are fraught with big issues.

But what about the all-important—yet often overlooked—issue of food policy? After all, as attorney general, Sessions will have a huge platform upon which to influence the federal food stamp program, officially known as SNAP.

A glimpse back at a 2012 debate on the Senate floor tells us pretty much all we need to know about Session's stance—at least at the time—on this essential topic. When Kirstin Gillibrand, the senator from New York, argued in favor of restoring $4.5 billion in aid programs to feed hungry Americans—programs that a farm bill proposed by Sessions would cut—Sessions lashed out against Gillibrand and SNAP, saying: "It's precisely this kind of thinking that has bled our treasury of money that we need to pay for the demands that this country has. I also think it's a moral issue."

Sessions elaborated: "Is our national goal to place as many people on welfare, food stamp support, as we can possibly put on that program? Is that our goal? Is that a moral vision for the United States of America, just to see how many people we can place in a situation where they're dependent on the federal government for their food? I just ask that. I think we should wrestle with that question."

Sessions was unmoved when Gillibrand said the Bible seemed to suggest a different take: "In Matthew 25, the first question Christ asks on Judgement Day is, 'Did you feed the poor?' It's unacceptable that we have Republican advocates who are saying it's immoral to support food stamps," she argued.

Regarding Sessions' stance on SNAP, chef and activist Tom Colicchio, who is the cofounder of Food Policy Action, told MUNCHIES, "It's shocking that someone being considered for our nation's chief law enforcement officer just four years ago on the Senate floor ignored facts about a reliable safety net program and made false public claims about SNAP to justify cutting billions in food access for hungry kids. If he was able to ignore and negatively frame a vital program like SNAP, one must ask, what else will he try to cut and falsely frame to justify his actions as AG? We hope that Senator Sessions has changed his views on important federal programs like SNAP and as AG will recognize and protect the value and success of the vital safety net programs in America."

READ MORE: We Asked Food Policy Experts What They Thought of Trump's Plan to Dissolve the FDA

Seminal nutritionist and food studies professor Marion Nestle agrees. She told us, "Right now, SNAP is the only lifeline for the poor. Most SNAP recipients are working; they just don't make enough money to live on. This means that SNAP is a taxpayer subsidy for companies like Walmart. It can pay its workers a pittance and let the government make up the difference. What does Sessions want the working poor to do? Starve on the street? Where is his humanity?"

Sessions has claimed that the federal food stamp program is a playground for fraudsters and has "surged out of control"—despite findings from the US Agriculture Department, which estimates the fraud rate in SNAP to hover around 1 percent. On this point, Nestle said, "The USDA already spends an inordinate amount of money—hundreds of millions of dollars a year—on fraud prevention in SNAP. Fraud is not the biggest problem with SNAP. Inadequate benefits are a much bigger problem."

Sessions, like many other opponents of SNAP, has also argued that benefits go to those who don't need it. On this point, Danielle Nierenberg, a food equality activist and the founder and president of Food Tank, told us, "Senator Sessions has a long-standing beef with SNAP, claiming lottery winners are using food stamps. But SNAP is only available to eaters who are actually eligible based on income and assets as well as household size." She added, "I'm concerned that Senator Sessions doesn't understand how critical SNAP benefits are to millions of Americans. I think Congress and the next Administration will regret it as they see families suffer from hunger."

Plenty of Americans are afraid that should Sessions pass muster with the Senate, as is expected, their civil rights will be in jeopardy.

Among those rights is one that is often neglected. As Nina F. Ichikawa, policy director for the Berkeley Food Institute, told MUNCHIES, "UC Berkeley research has shown that participation in SNAP improves family health. Denying families basic food aid is denying them a human right."