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Lawmakers nearing deal on nutrition funding in spending talks

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Lawmakers are nearing a major deal that could unlock a key piece of the funding logjam on Capitol Hill ahead of the looming partial shutdown March 2.

Negotiators are considering a deal to approve a pilot program restricting some choices for SNAP beneficiaries in exchange for a boost in funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and several other nutrition programs as they try to hammer out a spending deal.

According to three people familiar with the talks, the possible deal involves adding what’s known as the SNAP-choice pilot program, backed by Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA Chair Andy Harris (R-Md.), to the Ag-FDA spending bill, as well as an undisclosed amount of extra funding for WIC, the nutrition program that helps feed millions of low-income mothers and babies, which is facing a funding cliff.

The extra funding is expected to be enough for Democrats to say they were able to keep recipients from being put on waitlists.

The framework for the deal has been pushed up to congressional leaders, and an internal decision could come as soon as Friday, according to two of the people familiar with the matter, who were granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Some key House Democrats, however, have already pushed back on the SNAP-choice pilot program and tried to delink Harris’ demands from WIC funding that’s traditionally been a bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill.

Long-running battle: Anti-hunger advocates and conservatives have long debated the SNAP-choice concept, which would restrict which foods low-income families can buy with their SNAP benefits. Harris’ voluntary five-state pilot program would allow the SNAP benefits to be used to purchase only “nutrient dense” foods aligned with the dietary guidelines, ruling out items like soda, candy and most ultra-processed foods. Some states are already testing pieces of such a program.

GOP win: Harris and House Republicans are likely to get “very few policy wins” out of the funding talks, according to one of the people familiar with the plan, and this is one way the GOP can claim a victory on instituting more rigor in the SNAP program. Harris has dug in on the the issue, according to the people.

Dem wins: In exchange for including Harris’ pilot program, Democrats would be able to keep WIC afloat as it rapidly approaches a funding cliff in the coming months. Democrats and anti-hunger groups have warned states will be forced to put recipients on waitlists if Congress doesn’t approve $1 billion in additional funding.

Increases to funding for several other nutrition programs are also likely to be included in the deal, such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program and The Emergency Food Assistance Program.

The White House requested an additional $1 billion for WIC funding this year, but GOP negotiators have rebuffed Democrats’ efforts to add the extra WIC money to several other funding stopgaps in recent months.

Impending backlash: The SNAP-choice pilot is extremely controversial among nutrition advocates, however, since it restricts what families can buy with their benefits. The possible deal has also sparked panic among the food industry over concerns about Harris’ definition of what qualifies as “nutrient dense” and which foods will be left off the list.

According to the current dietary guidelines, “nutrient-dense foods and beverages provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components and have little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.”

“Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, and lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry —when prepared with no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium — are nutrient-dense food,” according to the guidelines.

The pilot could also come under legal scrutiny, from a variety of groups who could argue the regulators are too burdensome for the program.

“I guarantee there will be legal challenges, from the recipients, the advocates, the retailers,” said a fourth person familiar with the talks.