December 11, 2018
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Trump’s ‘harvest box’ is far from a guarantee of nutrition

Richard B. Levine | TNS
Richard B. Levine | TNS
A sign in front of a 7-Eleven in New York announces that the convenience store accepts SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), on October 20, 2012. President Donald Trump has called for replacing half of the food stamp benefits received with a food delivery service tentatively called "America's Harvest Box."

Maine residents have become used to the top elected official in their state and his subordinates impugning the integrity and questioning the decision-making abilities of the state’s poorest residents. With President Donald Trump, the same tendencies are taking hold nationally.

His administration’s “Harvest Box” is a case in point.

The administration’s budget proposal introduced this winter includes a proposal to convert half of a household’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits from a monetary benefit to be redeemed at participating retailers into a “USDA Foods package.” The package, referred to as “America’s Harvest Box,” would come with, in the Trump administration’s words, “shelf-stable milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.” It’s not entirely clear how those boxes would make their way to the homes of SNAP recipients. And while the administration says the foods would be nutritious, it’s not clear what nutrition standards would apply.

The harvest box’s primary feature, perhaps, is that it’s wrapped into an administration proposal to slash SNAP’s budget by 30 percent — meaning the nation’s poorest would be paying for Republican-backed tax cuts passed late last year by having less to eat.

About half of what they would still receive through SNAP would come in the form of the harvest box.

The approach has all sorts of problems.

First, low-income Americans have trouble affording nutritious, fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, most Americans’ diets are deficient in fresh fruits and vegetables. The last thing most Americans need is more canned, “ready-to-eat” food. With half of their reduced benefits tied up in a harvest box, Americans with already diminished food budgets would be even less able to buy fresh, nutritious foods of their own choosing.

Second, the harvest box idea on its own is an insult to the nation’s low-income residents. It’s a message from their government that they’re not to be trusted to make their own food choices, when the choices SNAP recipients make aren’t that different from those made by everyone else. That low-income people’s food choices are better made by bureaucrats is a puzzling message from an administration that promised to “drain the swamp.”

Third, the harvest box might not even be easy to retrieve for many SNAP recipients. A one-page, U.S. Department of Agriculture handout on the proposal says, “States will be given substantial flexibility to distribute these food benefits to participants. States can distribute these boxes through existing infrastructure, partnerships, and/or directly to residences through commercial and/or retail delivery services.” With a crucial choice left up to states, there’s no guarantee the harvest boxes will be easily accessible to the people of limited means for whom they’re intended. Plus, there’s no indication of the harvest boxes’ distribution schedule.

In fact, with only broad generalities spelled out, many questions remain. How will the administration ensure only nutritious foods are making their way to SNAP recipients? How does a food qualify as nutritious — if a manufacturer says it is? Could the harvest box turn into a revenue opportunity for the USDA, with a different food manufacturer sponsoring each month’s foods package? If states do provide for the food boxes to be delivered door to door, how do they guard the privacy of SNAP recipients whose neighbors have no need to know that they’re recipients of government benefits?

It’s important to recognize that the harvest boxes are part of an effort to provide SNAP recipients with less. They’re a not so veiled attempt to treat low-income Americans as less than full participants in American society.

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