Last week the Trump administration announced a plan to dramatically reduce Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for some recipients and instead provide them with pre-filled food boxes called “harvest boxes”. The idea is ostensibly to save the government money, buy American grown products, and force people who need assistance to eat food that the Federal government has decided is healthy for them.
Some of the earliest alarms about this plan were sounded by grocery stores and food banks. Grocery stores tend to operate at very low profit margins, often below 5% and for many it’s as low as 1-2%. Nationwide about $41 million people use SNAP, that’s a little under 13% of the U.S. population. For grocery stores SNAP benefits accounts for about 7.5% of their sales, losing that would mean a lot of supermarkets would likely have to cut jobs, raise prices, or just close. Independent grocery stores, and grocery stores in states and communities with higher than average percentages of SNAP users would be especially hard hit by the change.
For food banks to concern is sort of the opposite. Most food banks are set up to handle a limited amount of food being distributed to a limited number of people. They are not set up for large-scale constant distribution, which is what the “harvest boxes” would require. Right now food banks and the U.S. government work together on the Commodity Supplemental Food Program to provide food boxes to low-income seniors in the U.S. This program was apparently the blue print for the “harvest box” plan, but it seems that no one at the USDA or elsewhere in the Trump administration consulted with the food bank community, or gave them a heads up that they might be taking on tens of millions of new clients. This is understandably alarming to food banks across the country since they lack the funds, infrastructure, and staff for an undertaking of this scale.
Beyond these big issues there are a couple other possible negative unintended consequences of the “harvest box” plan. For one thing the Federal government does not actually have a great track record of deciding what’s healthy. The current nutrition recommendations from the USDA advise consuming dairy at every meal even though, according to Harvard Medical School “there is little evidence that high dairy intake protects against osteoporosis and substantial evidence that consuming a lot of milk and dairy foods can be harmful.” The current guidelines are also fairly vague when it comes to other important information like the difference between eating lean protein such as fish versus eating processed red meat. Even though the current guidelines are an improvement over the last two sets, (remember the food pyramid?) the information they publish is not really designed to be used to pick out groceries for individual families, and it’s just not good enough to justify overriding people’s own dietary choices.
Another potential pitfall is that when people don’t get to choose their food they is a higher chance that they’re not going to eat it. American already waste more food than anyone in the world. This is not just an economic or nutritional issue, it’s an environmental catastrophe. Growing food we don’t eat wastes literally tons of water and other valuable resources, food takes up a huge portion of landfill space in the U.S. and it’s responsible for almost one fifth of the methane emissions that come from U.S. landfills. Food waste is a problem that’s getting worse, even without the “harvest boxes”, and for which we currently have no large-scale solution. So this is maybe not the best time to be growing and handing out a bunch of food that people may or may not like, may or may not know how to cook, and could just as easily end up in the garbage as on a plate.
Finally there is something off putting about this plan from a the perspective that freedom is supposed to be an American value. SNAP is one of those benefits that U.S. taxpayers contribute to but hope they’ll never have to use. If the time comes that a person does need it, it seems wrong that they don’t even get to decide for themselves how to use it, but rather that their food choices are made by some government officials whose entire salary comes from those same tax dollars. This feels like the height of nanny state over reach, and is frankly disappointing coming from a supposedly Republican administration.