Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 14, 2018
It took a day for one haughty proposal in the attack on social services reflected in President Trump’s budget proposal to rise to public attention. It turns out that the Trump administration is proposing to save billions in the years ahead by giving low-income families a box of government-picked, non-perishable foods every month instead of food stamps.
That’s right. Donald Trump and Republican defenders of individual rights over all else, the people who say government shouldn’t interfere in the ownership of guns, for example, want to dictate to poor families what food they should eat. Rather than embrace the issue that poverty and hunger are so widespread that we need an extensive food stamp program, the Trump budget proposes cutting $200 billion from the food program.
Asked about the proposal, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney praised the approach as a”Blue Apron-type program,” the company delivering on-demand ingredients for cooking a single meal — would save the government money while also providing people with more nutritious food than they have now.
This is an idea so outrageous that it has me walking in circles to calm myself. What this is really about is yes, the savings, but also keeping alive the canard that somehow poor people spend food stamps on lobsters and other high-end items. For openers, Blue Apron delivers fresh ingredients; this proposal is about non-perishable items that might account for half a month’s support or more. .
More importantly, this government, which insists that individuals, not the government, need and want to choose their health care as an excuse to putting millions of people at risk of losing health insurance, now wants to dictate food choices for Medicaid recipients. What about individual choice? What about ethnic, regional, medical or family food restrictions?
Or put another way, this government wants to protect religious desires to protest same-sex marriage or health choices that include contraception, but feels it is perfectly reasonable to tell families what to eat? This government that wants choice over public schools wants to dictate whether people eat chunky peanut butter rather than creamy?
As outlined by Politico, the proposal buried in the White House’s 2019 budget would replace about half of the money most families receive via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, with what the Department of Agriculture is calling “America’s Harvest Box.” That package would be made up of “100 percent U.S. grown and produced food” and would include items like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal. It is estimated that USDA would save more than $129 billion over 10 years.
Asked about how delivery would work, USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh clarified that states would “have flexibility” in how they choose to distribute the food to SNAP recipients. To be specific, the federal government would not pay for home delivery, which would mean families going to central locations for pickup. Nice. What happened to dignity?
Currently, food stamps are used as debit cards at most supermarkets, of course. Individual markets or states can put limitations on the use of SNAP payments, so they cannot be used for alcohol, for example. The proposal would allow continued use of the food stamp debit cards for foods not covered. It would apply to households receiving at least $90 a month in benefits, or more than 80% of recipients or more than 16 million households. Officials insisted that bulk buying would cut costs in half.
SNAP recipients collect an average of $4.17 a day, or a meal average of $1.48. There have been oodles of stories over the years about non-recipients struggling as writers tried to live on a food-stamp diets.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the harvest box plan is “a bold, innovative approach” that would give SNAP participants the same “level of food value” as the current system while saving taxpayers money. Apparently it was the brainchild of the Agriculture Department itself.
“Numerous questions remain, such as how these boxes would be customized for, say, a family that has a child with nut allergies — or for those who don’t eat certain types of meat out of religious or personal reasons. The proposal was so out of left field that some anti-hunger advocates initially thought it was a joke,” reported Politico.
Anti-hunger advocates said the concept was reminiscent of wartime rations or soup lines during the Great Depression. The Food Research and Action Center, a prominent nonprofit group, called the harvest box idea “a Rube-Goldberg designed system” that would be “costly, inefficient, stigmatizing, and prone to failure.”
Grocery retailers also balked at the proposal, including the Food Marketing Institute, which represents major retailers like Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons. The grocers’ group attacked the economics of the plan.
Administration officials noted that the Agriculture Department already distributes commodities. Currently, such food items are largely shipped to schools, food banks and other organizations — which in turn distribute the food to those who need it. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program, for example, sends boxes of food to 600,000 low-income, elderly individuals with the help of food banks and other nonprofits. The fiscal 2019 budget seeks to eliminate that program and combine it with the harvest box program.
There are also questions about how the government would get harvest boxes to rural and remote households and whether cutting SNAP benefits spent in stores would hurt mom-and-pop stores in small communities.
Of course, the Trump budget plan has zero chance of getting passed as is in Congress. Nevertheless, it is the flawed thinking at the base of the proposal that has me in a tizzy.