The Trump administration has proposed a change to the current food stamp program in the US, replacing benefits with a “Harvest Box” that would include items like milk, pasta, and meat, but no
fresh fruit or vegetables.
America’s Supplemental Food And Nutrition Program (or SNAP) currently provides benefits to around 42 million low-income, retired, or disabled Americans. People who are eligible for SNAP benefits received a specialized debit card, which can be spent on unprepared food. On average, the typical SNAP recipient gets $126 in benefits per person per month, or about $1.40 per meal, according to the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities.
Under the Trump administration’s new proposal, anyone receiving over $90 a month would receive half their benefits as a box of pre-packed food, all “100 percent American-grown and produced.” In a statement accompanying the proposal, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called it “a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families.” He also claimed that the program would maintain “the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive.”
The boxes are part of a proposal to cut SNAP spending by over $200 billion over the next ten years, and the USDA says that the boxes alone would save $129.2 billion of that amount. But critics of the government believe that the program would be more cumbersome to implement than simply giving recipients benefits to spend. The Trump administration did not clarify how the boxes would be distributed, describing it as a “flexible solution for states to handle.” Many worries that the cost of transportation will be downloaded onto states.
Many also believe that the program will make it more difficult for low-income recipients to eat. Citing the fact that the boxes are meant to be prepared in full kitchens, health policy professor Sara Abiola asked VOX, “What happens if your kitchen is not functional? It’s idealistic to think that folks are going to be able to cook a ‘healthy’ meal.” Many who receive SNAP benefits are homeless or have precarious housing, making it difficult for them to prepare food like pasta.
The administration did not address whether there would be accommodations made for people with allergies or dietary restrictions, or whether there would be instructions on how to cook the specific foods inside of the box. Many see the new plan as a punishment for people on benefits, a way to make their lives difficult without affording any real benefits. In a statement to NPR, Douglas Greenway, the president of the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children, said, “The budget seems to assume that participating in SNAP is a character flaw.”
Industry leaders also oppose the move to “Harvest Baskets,” citing lowered revenue to grocery stores. According to the firm Customer Growth Partners, SNAP benefits drive 7.5 percent of supermarket sales, and a reduction in benefits would have a noticeable impact on revenue. Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center, told VOX that every dollar spent on SNAP benefits generates $1.79 for the economy, functioning as an “economic multiplier” as grocery stores reap the rewards of people shopping there. In fact, the proposal is already negatively impacting grocery stores: the day the proposal was announced, shares of Dollar Tree Inc. and Dollar General Corp. both dropped substantially.
The proposed boxes are so unpopular that some wonder if they are merely a distraction, meant to draw people’s attention away from other potential changes to SNAP. The current proposal will cut 30% of SNAP funding and cut off around 4 million people from receiving benefits. “I don’t think there’s really any support for their box plan,” Stacey Dean, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the New York Times. “The dangers are these other proposals to cut benefits. But all anyone is talking about today are the boxes.”
As the boxes are part of Trump’s proposed 2019 budget, they would need to be approved by Congress, which seems unlikely given their near-universal unpopularity. But government-watchers see the proposal as part of a calculated attack on the benefits program, meant to undermine SNAP’s public image. Jim Weill, of the Food Research and Action Center, told NPR: “Whenever you see proposals like this that attack [SNAP] … it harms the program even if it doesn’t pass, in the long term reducing support for the program and stigmatizing people who use it.”
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