By: Lyndsey McCallister
On February 12th, media outlets reported on a Trump administration plan that would reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. Under the proposal, a portion of the SNAP benefits would be transferred from currency over to direct food benefits. The program was compared to the “blue apron” food delivery program. The “America’s harvest” boxes would include staple food products like canned fruits, cereal, shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, and canned meats. The food in these boxes would be 100 percent American grown and produced. It’s worthy to note blue apron has had increasing net losses over $132.7 million between 2014 and 2016. How can the government do better than the model they are basing the program off of, if the model is failing?
Trump administration officials say the plan would save $213 billion over 10 years, without reducing the amount of food made available to recipients. The administration believes that the savings will come from the federal government using its bulk purchasing power to reduce the overall cost of food. It’s estimated that 81 percent of households that receive SNAP benefits will become recipients of the harvest boxes if this plan becomes a reality.
The food stamp program served about 42 million people and averaged service to 21 million households during the FY (fiscal year) 2017. The program costs the federal government $68.1 billion in FY 2017 – $63.7 billion of that given out as benefits. According to USDA, the average household benefit was $254.14 monthly.
Anti-hunger advocates have come out forcefully against the proposal. The Food Research and Action Center called the harvest box plan an idea that would be “costly, inefficient, stigmatizing, and prone to failure.” Other advocates have compared the boxes to military MRE’s (meals ready to eat) and said they brought to mind the soup lines of the Great Depression. Still other advocates raised questions of potential allergies (peanut butter, etc.) and how these boxes would be delivered to recipients in rural communities.
Hunger Free America is a hunger advocacy group that also helps its clients to access food-assistance services. The group’s CEO, Joel Berg, said that officials in the Trump administration “have managed to propose nearly the impossible, taking over $200 billion worth of food from low income Americans while increasing bureaucracy and reducing choices.” Jordan Rasmussen of the Center for Rural Affairs said, “This action would not only destabilize attempts to bring more healthy, fresh foods into the homes of America’s food insecure, but would keep dollars out of local grocery stores and farmers markets, which are critical assets to all communities.”
The “America’s Harvest Box” program shares some similarities with the WIC program in that aid to the poor is being proposed as direct food, rather than currency to purchase anything eligible. Douglas Greenaway is President of the National WIC (Woman Infants, and Children) Association. He’s raised many of the same concerns that anti-hunger advocates have raised, “Removing choice from SNAP flies in the face of encouraging personal responsibility.” Greenway added that “the budget seems to assume that participating in SNAP is a character flaw.”
The business community, as expected, reacted to the news of the plan. Shares of Dollar General Corp. Dollar Tree Inc. dropped on the day the plan was unveiled. Walmart is the largest US grocer; 18 percent of food stamps were used in their stores in 2013. Amazon has moved into the grocery sector with its purchase of whole foods. Target and Aldi stores also stand to lose billions if this plan goes through.
Jennifer Hatcher of the Food Marketing Institute, a grocery store trade group, spoke about the plan, saying that “Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings.” She went on to say the proposal increases red tape and reduced the efficiency associated with SNAP benefit redemption.
The Trump administration’s approach to reforming the SNAP program comes with many unanswered logistical questions. It’s unclear as to who would make the food deliveries. The US Postal Service is among the options, but this would mean new costs to the federal government. Assembly and delivery of the harvest boxes would require warehouse space and additional manpower beyond the limits of the existing SNAP program. The savings that could come from lower food costs could possibly be lost in the creation of a new administrative agency that would oversee the program.