February 13, 2018
Trump Wants to Dictate What Millions Can Eat
Trump pitches plan to replace food stamps with food boxes
HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH
The Trump administration is proposing to save billions in the coming years by giving low-income families a box of government-picked, nonperishable foods every month instead of food stamps.
White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday hailed the idea as one that kept up with the modern era, calling it a “Blue Apron-type program” — a nod to the high-end meal kit delivery company that had one of the worst stock debuts in 2017 and has struggled to hold onto customers. Mulvaney said the administration’s plan would not only save the government money, but also provide people with more nutritious food than they have now.
The proposal, buried in the White House’s fiscal 2019 budget, would replace about half of the money most families receive via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, 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.
But America’s Harvest Box, which USDA contends would save over $129 billion over 10 years, is not very comparable to startup meal-delivery companies like Blue Apron. For one, the Trump administration’s proposal doesn’t include fresh items, like produce or meat, which are the core of Blue Apron and its competitors. Such products perish quickly and are incredibly expensive to ship.
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. In other words, the federal government almost certainly would not be picking up the tab for any type of Amazon-style delivery system. “The projected savings does not include shipping door-to-door for all recipients,” Murtaugh said.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue praised the harvest box plan as “a bold, innovative approach” that would give SNAP participants the same “level of food value” as the current system while saving taxpayers money.
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.
Grocery retailers also balked at the proposal, including the Food Marketing Institute — which represents major retailers like Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons, where tens of billions of dollars in SNAP benefits are spent each year. The industry argues that government-packed food boxes would simply be inefficient.
The proposal was so out of left field that some anti-hunger advocates initially thought it was a joke. | Allen Breed/AP Photo
Jennifer Hatcher, the trade group’s chief public policy officer, said grocery retailers had worked with USDA and Congress over many years to “achieve a national system, utilizing existing commercial infrastructure and technology to achieve the greatest efficiency, availability and lowest cost.”
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.