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Facing mounting ridicule, Rep. Adrian Smith on Friday defended his refusal to say Americans are entitled to eat during a recent radio interview.

The Republican from Nebraska’s 3rd District has been criticized in opinion columns and by Democrats after dodging a question about whether Americans are entitled to eat on NPR’s "Weekend Edition." 

Smith, who has a decade of congressional experience, went on the national radio show last week to talk about President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to farm bill safety nets such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as food stamps — and crop insurance.

He wanted to explain their importance to “urban listeners who are not frequently engaged on the issue,” Smith said in a column released by his office Friday.

During the interview, NPR host Scott Simon, responding to Smith saying that “minor shifts” to food stamps could be effective fiscal policy, asked whether every American is “entitled to eat.”

Smith punted. He agreed nutrition is essential to life, but even after being asked a second time, refused to say Americans are entitled to eat or whether SNAP ought to guarantee food.

Instead, Smith said: “I think that we know that, given the necessity of nutrition, there could be a number of ways that we could address that.”

The word “entitled” is loaded with meaning, Smith said in his column, and he didn’t want to imply people are guaranteed food stamp benefits regardless of circumstances.

“This is how we ended up with the federal government handing out SNAP benefits to tens of millions of Americans every month,” he said.

Since the interview, Smith has been lampooned in opinion pieces and on social media. Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb invited him to try the Food Stamp Challenge, which entails eating on a budget of about $1.25 per meal, the average allocation of food stamp benefits.

Smith declined.

“Rather than taking the food stamp challenge, we need to be taking a closer look at the current program to determine how we can best assist those who need it while also ensuring we do not incentivize Americans to depend on the government indefinitely,” he said in an emailed statement responding to the challenge.

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Kleeb said the radio interview shows Smith is out of touch with problems facing Nebraskans who can't afford to eat.

"Poverty is an issue across rural Nebraska," Kleeb said in a prepared statement. "Food stamps are a safety net for Nebraskans, and especially coming from an ag state, Rep. Smith should know the critical importance of food for our families."

Smith painted himself as a victim of partisan politics.

“Of course, everyone needs to eat, and I have long been concerned about the cost of food,” he said in the column.

“However, my larger concern about this situation is it exemplifies why our country has been unable to come together to address the pressing issues we face. The 'gotcha' mentality rampant in politics divides us and prevents the real, substantive conversations we so desperately need.”

Smith called for Republicans and Democrats to cooperate in developing policies to improve Americans’ lives. More people on food stamps, he said, is not the solution.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com.

 On Twitter @ljsbergin.

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