Trump pitches plan to replace food stamps with food boxes

 In Politics

AP Photo

The proposal was so out of left field that some anti-hunger advocates initially thought it was a joke. | Allen Breed/AP Photo

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.

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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.

The idea that USDA would provide millions of low-income people packages of food on a national scale has not been floated by conservative think tanks, promoted by industry, or sought by previous administrations. Murtaugh said the concept was developed internally at USDA. Mulvaney on Monday credited Perdue for it during a briefing at the White House.

“Secretary Perdue wanted to give it a chance,” he said. “We thought it was a tremendous idea.”

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.

Kevin Concannon, who oversaw SNAP during the Obama administration, was aghast when he saw the proposal.

“Holy mackerel,” said Concannon, who said it reminded him of when poor people had to line up and wait for local officials to dole out food and other welfare benefits. “I don’t know where this came from, but I suspect that the folks when they were drawing it up were also watching silent movies.”

Other 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.”

In budget materials, USDA said it would be able to deliver this food at “approximately half the retail cost,” a claim advocates found hard to believe. Food-stamp recipients would get their remaining monthly allotment on debit cards that they can use in grocery stores, as they do now. The proposal applies to households receiving at least $90 a month in benefits, which covers more than 80 percent of SNAP recipients. That’s more than 16 million households.

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