When the Trump administration debuted its budget proposal for the 2018 fiscal year this past Monday, folks on the left, right, and center of the food policy world were left scratching their heads—and many were more than a little upset. Tucked away in the Department of Agriculture’s section, among priorities to help farmers and promote organics research, was a proposal to revamp SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in a most out-of-left-field way.
“The Budget proposes a bold new approach to nutrition assistance that combines traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households,” the document reads. Translation: Instead of cash assistance, the USDA would start doling out pre-selected, US-grown food directly to SNAP recipients. The Office of Management and Budget’s director Mick Mulvaney, who was responsible for drafting the budget proposal, called it “America’s Harvest Box,” and explained that it would replace approximately half of SNAP benefits for families receiving at least $90 in benefits with a curated assortment of shelf-stable, American commodity foods.
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue called this a “bold, innovative” approach in a statement giving more details of what this program might look like; “bold,” definitely, as most policy makers and nutrition advocates, even after dozens of congressional hearings in recent years on SNAP reform, had never once proposed such an option. “Innovative” might be a bit of a stretch.
The “Harvest Box” plan is modeled after other programs administered by the USDA through the Food and Nutrition Service. Through programs targeting the elderly and low-income tribal communities and Native American reservations, the FNS uses surplus commodity food products from American farmers and processors to supplement other food assistance programs. These programs have been in operation for decades.
So why would the USDA be trying to dress this up as a new idea? That answer is evading nearly everyone who currently works with surplus commodity food distribution, from caseworkers to nutritionists to food scholars. (When reached for comment, the USDA directed MUNCHIES back to Secretary Purdue’s statement from Monday.)
“It seems like there was no communication between the OMB and the FNS,” says CJ Butcher, who works for a local partner of Feeding America, enrolling seniors in Kentucky in the Commodity Surplus Food Program. The proposed Harvest Boxes would be modeled on the monthly boxes of foods seniors receive through the CSFP. That program would then be discontinued, and its clients folded into the Harvest Box program. “It’d make no sense for them to do this, the funds are just not there. It would be a logistical and nutritional nightmare for anyone at the state [level].”
Nutritionally speaking, the CSFP model would pose unthinkable complications for SNAP recipients. With a standard box including high-sodium, high-sugar, and preservative-laden items such as pasta, peanut butter, dried beans, canned meats, canned vegetables and fruit, and shelf-stable dairy products and juices, individuals with health issues, special nutritional needs, or conditions such as celiac disease and diabetes would be left with little to eat. Additionally, many people who receive SNAP benefits have to provide food for children that may be picky eaters.
CSFP recipients get no say in what they receive, even if they have dietary restrictions. Harvest Box recipients, which would be comprised of the roughly 16 million households receiving over $90 of SNAP benefits monthly, wouldn’t either.
No fresh foods would be included in these rations, as everything is meant to be shelf-stable. While enrolling seniors in CSFP, Butcher advises clients to use other SNAP benefits to purchase fresh produce for their necessary nutritional value. “The [CSFP] box is not the most nutritional thing,” he says. “It is useful, but to think about replacing SNAP benefits with that is just crazy to me.”
The logistics, too, as Butcher mentioned, are still a mystery, as the statement put out by Purdue simply says it would be left up to the states to figure out how to actually implement such a program. “Kentucky—especially because we have such a lower-income population," he says, "would not be able to afford that.”
“FNS would decide which foods are eligible. Somebody would put boxes together. None of that makes sense from an efficiency standpoint,” said Marion Nestle, nutrition and food scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School, speaking to MUNCHIES via email yesterday. Aside from simply turning half of SNAP assistance into a version of the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, where benefits can only be spent on products in a store designated by the FNS as meeting certain nutritional standards, she’s also stumped. “Having to put boxes together makes no sense for 40 million SNAP recipients. Scaling this up will be interesting: CSFP currently serves under 730,000 people. SNAP serves more than 40 million. It seems highly unlikely that doing these boxes can be scaled up like that.”
If the logistical nightmare and the dietary concerns weren’t enough, other activists and scholars are concerned by the social impact this could have on SNAP recipients, too. The box proposal would remove SNAP recipients from the tactile, social experience of shopping in a grocery store. Ashanté Reese, a professor of anthropology at Spelman College studying food access in urban spaces, argues that this further segregates and erases communities that are already largely invisible in the social consciousness of the country.
“How does that socially rearrange us?” Reese asks. “This is another marker of distinction, another marker of inequity that we’re going to be able to visibly see mapped onto space in the same way that we see the unequal distribution of grocery stores [in poor communities].”
Speaking with the New York Times, Representative Jim McGovern, ranking Democrat on the House committee that works with food and nutrition programs, called the proposal a “cruel joke,” but also “dead on arrival.” Support from Republican lawmakers has been non-existent, and experts are largely in agreement that there is little chance of this proposal passing both the House and Senate.
Whether this was an exercise in futility on the part of the Trump administration or not, it demonstrates its priority to gut the social safety net by any means—even the most poorly thought out ones—possible.