Lobbyists for major food industry trade groups have called upon former colleagues now at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help them stem changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program that would have limited sales of sugary drinks and other forms of junk food.
In late 2017 and early 2018, the USDA was considering SNAP waiver requests regarding the exclusion of soft drinks and candy from the program and a proposal that would send boxes of government-purchased food to people on food stamps, replacing much of their local grocery shopping.
Emails obtained by Sludge show frequent and friendly communication between recent industry lobbyists now working on SNAP policy at the USDA and leaders from the National Grocers Association—for which two current USDA officials previously lobbied—SNAC International—where one of these officials used to work—and the American Beverage Association.
Two USDA staffers, Maggie Lyons and Kailee Tkacz, both previously lobbied for the National Grocers Association (NGA). Lyons, chief of staff and senior advisor to the undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services who was hired to work on SNAP and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, came to the agency in July 2017 after nearly five years of lobbying for the trade association. Tkacz, a policy adviser in the agency’s Office of Congressional Relations who was hired to work on the nation’s Dietary Guidelines that July, managed government affairs for NGA from 2012 to 2014 and then held positions at SNAC International, which represents over 400 producers of potato chips, popcorn, pork rinds and other snack foods, and the Corn Refiners Association, the United States’ major corn syrup trade group.
Nutrition expert, author and professor emerita at New York University Marion Nestle tells Sludge that lobbyists have always advocated their interests at government agencies. But what’s changed under the Trump administration is “the level of complicity” with industry lobbyists.
Because working on issues they recently lobbied on would violate ethics rules for executive branch appointees, the White House counsel wrote Lyons and Tkacz ethics waivers. Thus, they are legally working with their former employers in the food industry on the very issues they previously pushed in Washington when working for those employers.
Killing the Ban on Soda
In February 2017, Maine made a request for a waiver from ordinary SNAP regulations so it could prevent SNAP recipients from purchasing soda and candy with food stamps.
“Maine believes the purchase of sugar sweetened beverages (also known as soft drinks or soda) and candy is detrimental to the health of its SNAP population, and undermines the purpose of the SNAP program,” reads the request. “Maine, like other states, has experienced an alarming epidemic of obesity and other weight-related diseases, which can be prevented with reduced consumption of sugar.”
Initially, the USDA appeared to be receptive to such state waivers. “We believe states are laboratories of innovation and seek to learn from you what works and what does not,” Brandon Lipps, Food and Nutrition Service administrator and acting deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, wrote in a November 2017 letter to state SNAP administrators. “As necessary to address each of these focus areas, we will allow greater state flexibility in areas that do not increase costs to taxpayers or our various partners on the ground.”
This letter set off weeks of extensive emails, phone calls and meetings with top officials from NGA, SNAC International and the American Beverage Association (ABA).
On Dec. 5, 2017, ABA lobbyist Barbara Hiden emailed Lyons and Tkacz to ask about a USDA press release that day announcing “new state flexibilities” for the states regarding the SNAP program. Aside from work requirements, “What other flex programs are out there? Of course, everyone is asking me if this means restrictions. I told them I did not believe it had anything to do with what could/could not be purchased.”
Lyons suggested Hiden give her a call to discuss the nature of these flexibilities. ABA is a major trade group representing mostly soft drink and juice producers—including the makers of 7UP, Coke, Pepsi, NuGrape and Virgil’s root beer—as well as some bottled water companies.
A few days later, a Coca-Cola lobbyist sent Hiden a Washington Post article on state SNAP flexibilities that indicated the USDA was “considering proposals to let states impose new restrictions on purchases of soda and candy.” Hiden forwarded the article to Lyons and Tkacz, writing, “I’m assuming the Post confused [Secretaries Innovation Group’s] wish list as a done deal and attributed [Secretaries Innovation Group’s] support for these ideas to USDA. Would not be the first time the Fourth Estate screwed something up.” Again, Lyons suggested they speak on the phone.
Then on Dec. 12, Lyons sent Hiden a video of USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue’s speech at the National Press Club that day. “Fast forward to 40:45,” she wrote. “I heard he gave a great answer. I will give this a listen. Thank you!” Hiden replied.
Perdue responded to a question about reports that the USDA was considering state limits on soda and snack purchases by saying that his agency had received a few waiver requests of this nature. “My concern, obviously, when we—USDA—administer that, where do you draw the line with certain states?…If you have…sugary drinks and snacks and salty snacks and those kind of things that we deem unhealthy, that’s one thing, but what about ‘you should not have any products that have genetically engineered products in them’…That’s a slippery slope that we’re gonna have to consider really carefully.”
On January 16, 2018, the USDA turned down Maine’s request, saying it would “increase administrative costs” and “choose winners and losers in the food industry.”
The close relationship between USDA officials and food industry lobbyists is “unseemly, and the lines are very, very blurred,” Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst for the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Sludge. “Looking at Ms. Tkacz’s correspondence with staff at the National Grocers Association about the Maine waiver, I’m not sure whether she technically crossed a line. But yeah, it seems to be a really cozy relationship, and it doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of the public.”
Grocers Fight for Soda and Junk Food
The National Grocers Association began working to set up lobbying meetings with Lyons, Tkacz and Lipps starting in August 2017, email records show.
On August 22, 2017, NGA Executive Vice President Greg Ferrara emailed Lyons to request a meeting “to introduce the Secretary to NGA and also discuss a number of our priorities including SNAP and the [Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive] program,” which is part of SNAP.
Then, in mid-December, NGA Vice President of Government Affairs Chris Jones emailed Tkacz and Lipps, asking for a meeting to “discuss issues related to the SNAP flexibility initiative.”
On Jan. 29, 2018, NGA Executive Vice President Greg Ferrara emailed Tkacz, his former colleague, to provide potential talking points for Sec. Perdue’s upcoming speech at an NGA event. One issue was the SNAP waivers, particularly the proposal from Maine.
“This is a big issue for our industry and we’re grateful for the Secretary’s decision to ultimately deny this request,” explained Ferrara. “The result, unfortunately, would have been more regulatory burdens on retailers who would have to literally program each food item to be in or out of the program, and with food items changing daily this would be a never ending process.”
Tkacz had passed along the suggested talking points to Perdue’s speechwriter, who then scheduled a call with Ferrara. CNN reported that Perdue used additional talking points from NGA, sometimes nearly verbatim, at the February 11 event.
On Feb. 1, Jones emailed Tkacz, writing, “We certainly appreciate the Secretary’s decision to reject the Maine waiver. Thanks for all of the work you did to help with that.”
The issue of banning certain foods from SNAP is a complex one. Stillerman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “The issue of restricting what foods SNAP participants can purchase with their benefits is complicated, and there’s a ‘punishing poor people’ aspect to it. It’s also not clear to me that it’s a very effective way to improve nutrition among the most vulnerable individuals and families in our country.”
But Nestle thinks otherwise, writing that “taking sugar-sweetened beverages out of the package is a no brainer.” Nestle explains that her interpretation of a USDA-commissioned study of SNAP recipients’ purchasing habits at one large, unnamed retailer is that “SNAP recipients spent more of a combination of their SNAP benefits and their own private money on” sugar-sweetened beverages, flavored milk, kids cereals, among other foods with low nutritional value. The USDA interpreted the study, which was obtained via a Freedom of Information Request, in a different way, claiming that people both receiving and not receiving SNAP benefits had similar grocery shopping habits.
The USDA has never granted a “soda ban” waiver. Nestle told Sludge she’d like to see it tried. “Do it as a pilot project. See it,” she said. “I mean there are rumors, anecdotal evidence and there are studies that show that SNAP recipients would like help with kind of thing. And then there’s the evidence from the [WIC] package.” WIC, the Woman, Infants and Children nutrition program also administered by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, restricts foods that are eligible for WIC, excluding sugary cereals, peanut spreads, fruits with added sugars, and other items.
“Sugar-sweetened beverages have sugars, water and nothing else, so they have calories but no nutritional value. And they’re added calories that nobody needs,” Nestle said. “There’s evidence that the prevalence of obesity is higher among the poor. You don’t want to encourage that. Part of the reason for it is that junk foods are cheaper than fruits and vegetables…Poor people who want to eat healthfully have a problem making their dollars go around. The SNAP benefits are never sufficient to live on.”
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According to USDA data, SNAP recipients spend more of their benefits on soda than on any other type of food or drink. One potential contributing factor, a recent study shows, is that soft drink advertising ramps up on days that states distribute SNAP benefits.
In September 2017, several weeks after Lyons joined the USDA, Michael Torrey Associates lobbyist Sarah Hubbart—who represents ABA, SNAC International, flour producer Ardent Mills, a crop insurer and multiple dairy companies—emailed Lyons to ask about a meeting involving “a group of organizations from the SNAP choice alliance to visit with you, Kailee, and Brandon Lipps.” “We hope to touch base with you as the farm bill process ramps up,” she wrote.
After some back-and-forth, a date was set for the lunch. On Sept. 25, the day before the meeting, Hubbart sent Lyons a list of the attendees that included other lobbyists in frequent communication with Lyons and Tkacz—Hiden of ABA and Jessica Hixson of SNAC International—as well as others from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Confectioners Association, the Juice Products Association, and two representatives of Feed America, a food bank network that partners with major food and drink producers such as Coca-Cola, General Mills and Walmart.
Subsequent communications show that Hubbart set up a meeting between “the entire [Michael Torrey Associates] crew and Tkacz, Lyons and “Mike” for Oct. 27. In December, Hubbart sent Lyons and Tkacz “a letter opposing SNAP food choice restrictions, including the pending waiver requests…signed by 17 national organizations representing the food, beverage, and retail industries.” (A request for this document is outstanding.) In January, Hubbart emailed Lyons and Tkacz to ask for “any update on the status of the pending SNAP food choice waiver requests.”
The ‘American Harvest Box’
On Feb. 13, NGA VP of Government Affairs Chris Jones emailed the USDA’s Brandon Lipps, who previously worked for a law firm that specializes in agricultural law and has represented clients including food companies and industry trade organization. Jones was concerned about the new White House 2019 budget proposal that would massively reduce SNAP funding and send families government-purchased food boxes, “upending SNAP’s successful and efficient public-private partnership with some 260,000 retail stores,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
NGA members were “in high spirits with the Secretary’s speech that was very complementary (sic) of the industry,” Jones said, but then were “shocked and confused as to why the Administration would want to move away from the government’s partnership with retailers in the SNAP program.”
Lipps responded cordially with, “We would welcome the opportunity visit. As you know our door is always open and we appreciate our relationship with NGA as an important partner in a number of USDA programs.”
On March 2, NGA sent a letter to members of Congress opposing the Harvest Box proposal and other changes to SNAP, something at made Lipps “extremely disappointed,” according to one email he sent.
But after what appears to have been a positive March 7 meeting with Lipps and Jones, Ferrara emailed Lipps to thank him. “We appreciate your candor and willingness to engage with us going forward on a dialogue about how you can achieve savings and efficiencies in the SNAP program…I will proactively reach out to FNCS going forward as concerns come up from our members. I’m sure we’ll be in contact soon as the Farm Bill proceeds. Finally…I want you to know that everyone I work with on the Hill and on the industry side thinks your team is doing incredibly well…everyone appreciates your efforts and respects the hell out of you.”
“Thanks for the note and your comments in the meeting,” replied Lipps on March 12. “We appreciate your commitment to increasing dialogue. Please reach out anytime.”
Since then, the Harvest Box proposal, which received criticism from a wide variety of individuals and groups, hasn’t advanced and isn’t included in the current version of the Farm Bill.
Additional emails obtained by Sludge show close communication between Tkacz, who previously lobbied the USDA on its Dietary Guidelines on behalf of the Corn Refiners Association, and her former employers. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which also received these emails, published a piece in August detailing how Tkacz has pushed the interests of snack food and corn syrup producers in this arena. This author first reported on Tkacz’s USDA appointment to shape the Dietary Guidelines, which impact numerous nutrition programs, after lobbying for the Corn Refiners Association for two years.
Waivers to Work with Former Employers
According to the Trump administration’s ethics rules for executive branch appointees, these appointees are not permitted to work on issues they previously lobbied on for two years following their government appointment.
But Lyons and Tkacz both received ethics waivers from White House counsel Don McGahn, allowing them to work on those issues—SNAP and WIC for Lyons, and Dietary Guidelines for Tkacz—immediately after joining the USDA. This reporter uncovered these potential conflicts of interest early this year, reporting on Tkacz’ position as a former corn syrup lobbyist now working to shape the nation’s Dietary Guidelines and on several other ex-lobbyists who joined the USDA. (Read the waivers for Lyons and Tkacz.)
Trump weakened Barack Obama’s ethics rules, which barred appointees from joining agencies they had lobbied in the previous two years. The Obama administration did issue waivers for nominees to get around ethics rules as well, but after only four months on the job, Trump’s White House has issued more waivers than Obama’s had over eight years.
The USDA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.