What’s in the box? Trump’s SNAP proposal surprises food industry
Thursday, February 22, 2018
In the year that President Donald Trump has been in office, Americans have become somewhat accustomed to his unorthodox approach to managing the country's affairs from the Oval Office.
But perhaps no decision coming out of the Trump administration so far has left more people scratching their heads than the recent proposal to completely reshape the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Trump wants to change the program to a "food box" delivery system, shocking many involved in the food industry.
Formerly known as "food stamps," SNAP provides millions of low income families and individuals with financial aid, via an electronic debit card, to purchase food and produce from grocery stores, big box retailers and farmer's markets participating in the program.
SNAP is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and provided $65.5 billion in assistance to 44.2 million people living in 21.8 million households in FY 2016, according to the FNS. The average SNAP household received $249 per month in benefits — but they weren't the only beneficiaries. Each SNAP dollar spent generated an estimated $1.80 in additional local economic activity.
Although it's a frequent punching bag for conservatives, SNAP enjoys widespread support from ranchers, farmers and the food and beverage industry. And why not? The program literally creates billions of dollars in additional market demand for their products. Participants can purchase fresh meat, vegetables and fruit from their local grocery stores, ensuring their families eat a healthier diet.
"It's a win-win," said Mollie Van Lieu, senior director of nutrition for the United Fresh Produce Association, referring to SNAP.
United Fresh's membership ranges from small family businesses to large international corporations, and represents the full breadth of the produce supply chain, from farm to fork. Like her cohorts across these industries, Van Lieu was caught off guard earlier this month when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue dropped America's Harvest Box on an unsuspecting Congress.
"It came out of nowhere, no one saw this coming," said Van Lieu, who tracks nutrition-related issues in Washington, D.C. for United Fresh. "In general, it's not something we support."
The problem? What's in the box.
The America's Harvest Box program proposes to radically transform SNAP by sending households who receive $90 or more in benefits per month — 81 percent of recipients — a portion of those benefits in a "package of nutritious, 100 percent U.S. grown and produced food."
The proposed food in the box might be nutritious, it might be made in the U.S., but it hardly qualifies as "fresh," particularly for an organization such as United Fresh. Products will be limited to "staple, shelf-stable foods, such as shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables."
"There's no 'fresh' in there," Van Lieu told MultiBriefs Exclusive. "We don't view this as the way to do it."
Besides noting that the proposal "drastically changes how people eat" by replacing personal nutritional choices with, say, powdered milk and canned green beans, Van Lieu questioned its scalability. So far, there are no logistical provisions in the bill, other than leaving implantation up to the individual states.
"It's modeled on an existing program that serves seniors, but that's a much smaller program," she said, adding that it appears the administration did not consult with that program, or any others, before drawing up its proposal.
America's Harvest Box purports to save SNAP $17.2 billion in FY 2019 and $213 billion through FY 2028, mainly by providing the items in the box at below retail cost. However, industry watchers have questioned whether the program would actually save any money. The Food Marketing Institute, which represents the nation's grocery stores, told Alternet the food-in-a-box proposal is "expensive, inefficient and unlikely to generate any long-term government savings."
Perhaps in an effort to put a positive spin on the proposal, which has received near universal scorn from advocates for the poor, newspaper editorialists and the food and beverage industry, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney compared America's Harvest Box to Blue Apron, the online fresh food and produce delivery service that's become popular with upscale users in urban areas.
This caused Blue Apron founding investor and philanthropist Joseph Sandberg to savage the proposal in The Nation magazine.
"The administration is calling it 'America’s Harvest Box' — an Orwellian name for a program that will be replacing fresh fruits and vegetables with canned and packaged alternatives," Sandberg wrote.
"As a founding investor of Blue Apron, and someone who has made ending poverty the focus of my life, I feel compelled to weigh in. Let's be clear: There is nothing 'Blue Apron–like' about these Trump Boxes. In fact, sending people boxes of canned goods and starches is quite literally the opposite of Blue Apron."
SNAP is funded through the Farm Bill, which Congress renegotiates every four years and is up for renewal this fall. Von Leiu said she expects to see the first draft legislation beginning next month. This time around, Trump has set the stage for uncertainty.
"We anticipated they'd go for work requirements and drug testing by offering different options for states to administer their programs, plus there was the threat of an overall reduction in funding," she said, when asked about United Fresh's 2018 legislative agenda.
Instead, in January, the Trump administration reneged on a commitment to allow Maine to restrict SNAP recipients from buying soda and candy, signaling that its support for state's rights on the issue may not be as strong as indicated. Then, there's America's Harvest Box, which some critics see as just a SNAP budget cut in disguise.
"I don't know a single person on the Hill who is for it," said Van Leiu.
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