The proposed budget issued by the Trump administration this week would slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for low-income families by $17 billion next year and more than $213 billion over the coming decade, while introducing what Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), described as a “Blue Apron-type program.”
In The Washington Post, Mulvaney characterized the proposed initiative as allowing enrollees to “receive the food instead of ... the cash,” further explaining, “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices], whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food.”
Under the program, dubbed America’s Harvest Box, all households receiving more than $90 per month in benefits — 81 percent of SNAP households overall — would receive around half their benefits in the form of government-purchased nonperishable food items, including shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it could supply these goods at about half the cost of retail, enabling it to reduce the cost of SNAP while still feeding the needy.
“USDA America’s Harvest Box is a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families – and all of it is home-grown by American farmers and producers,” noted Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “It maintains the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive, provides states flexibility in administering the program, and is responsible to the taxpayers.”
Change for the Worse?
Unsurprisingly, food retailers objected to the budget’s plans for SNAP.
“The section in the president’s 2019 budget titled ‘Reforming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)’ certainly makes major changes, but not changes that SNAP-authorized food retailers see as positive or even efficient,” said Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer at Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI).
Explained Hatcher: “FMI and our members have worked with the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and the USDA over several decades to achieve a national system, utilizing existing commercial infrastructure and technology to achieve the greatest efficiency, availability and lowest cost. As we understand the proposal in the president’s budget to create a USDA commodity foods box of staples, each of these achievements would be lost.”
She continued: “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. As the private partners with the government ensuring efficient redemption of SNAP benefits, retailers are looking to the administration to reduce red tape and regulations, not increase them with proposals such as this one.”
“Often considered the backbone of their community, America’s independent supermarket operators have long been indispensable partners in the SNAP food delivery system, serving millions of low-income households, including families with children, the elderly, and disabled,” noted Greg Ferrara, EVP of advocacy, public relations, and member services at the Arlington-based National Grocers Association (NGA). “SNAP is one of the most efficient federal social safety net programs, because retailers are the linchpin of a successful public-private partnership. Fierce competition in the food retail industry drives consumer prices down, therefore benefiting those on a limited food budget more than anyone. NGA is extremely concerned with the president’s budget proposal, as it abandons the proven free-market model on the ill-advised assumption that the government can purchase and provide food more efficiently than its current private-sector partners.”
Some health professionals, though, cheered the proposed overhaul of SNAP to offer more nutritious fare, while not necessarily agreeing that the Harvest Box program was the best way to do it.
“It’s great to see the USDA recognize that SNAP is lacking basic nutritional requirements, which is exacerbating obesity, heart disease and diabetes among the millions of Americans who rely on this critical program," observed Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based nonprofit health organization focusing on preventive medicine. "America’s Harvest Box is a positive sign that the USDA is aware of the growing problem, and this is a good move to the extent it focuses on a healthier SNAP. Our Healthy Staples plan takes that idea to the next level by allowing participants to choose from a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and beans. Also, these foods can be provided at any store, without the home delivery component detailed in the president’s budget.”
Additionally, the Chicago-based American Medical Association earlier this year urged the USDA to encourage the consumption healthful foods and discourage or eliminate unhealthful foods in SNAP.