There was one proposal in the Trump administration’s 2019 fiscal year budget that stood out to many of his economic supporters. The proposed budget, which would stand as the federal government’s spending allotment between October 2018 and September 2019, included a radical change to the food stamp system that serves as faint music to fiscal conservatives’ ears. That change has become known as ‘America’s Harvest Box’, per the administration’s PR department.
The details are included in the budget under ‘Improving Food Assistance’, which you can read on page 15 of this official document. In short, approximately half of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for those who receive $90 or more in assistance per month would be replaced with a box containing relatively healthy, predetermined items that most households – whether they receive federal assistance or not – consume on a regular basis, canned meat serving as the exception.
‘In a press briefing Feb. 13, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said “America’s Harvest Box” would include cereals, pasta, beans, canned meat, shelf-stable milk, canned fruit and vegetables and peanut butter.
“It lowers the cost to us because we can buy prices at wholesale, whereas they have to buy it at retail,” Mulvaney said in the briefing. “It also makes sure that (SNAP recipients) are getting nutritious food.”’ (The Packer)
Even though critics have been quick to complain that this Harvest Box would hurt the poor, such a drastic leap is yet unfounded. How could the residential delivery of staple foods possibly hurt the poor? To argue that pasta, beans, canned greens and fruit, canned meat (many families can only afford this kind of meat) and shelf-stable milk at wholesale prices would not be a step up from what is typically bought by families on SNAP assistance is to expose one’s ignorance of how the system has deteriorated, in many cases, into gas station shopping.
And before critics start browbeating about shelf-stable milk being somehow degrading, consider that the difference between shelf-stable and highly perishable milk is essentially a matter of packaging. As evidence, consider that most of Europe drinks shelf-stable milk.
Plus, according to the same Chicago Tribune article documenting the disdain voiced for the plan by ‘anti-hunger groups and retailers’, the Department of Agriculture has espoused lofty projections for the effect that the Harvest Box will have on tax payer dollars given to SNAP, with no apparent downside. The Department of Agriculture, the agency that has been tasked with overseeing food assistance programs, estimates that the Harvest Box would result in $129.2 billion over 10 years.
Plus, the data is in, and SNAP is far from nutritionally sound as is. That is likely due in large part to many poor people having scant access to traditional grocery stores or shoppers being stuck in the perception that such staple items are out of their price range.
‘A 2010 study completed by the Harvard School of Public Health using the 2007 Adult California Health Interview Survey (which tracks Body Mass Index and obesity data among Californians) found that obesity rates among SNAP participants were 30% higher than among non-participants, when adjusted for socio-demographic characteristics, food insecurity, and participation in other programs.’ (SNAP to Health)
With statistics like that, it’s clear that food assistance programs in America are currently in shambles. They not only cost taxpayers big money, they result in a worse quality of life for recipients, as these statistics make clear.
The Harvest Box program, which would maintain approximately half of SNAP electronic benefits while replacing the other half with the Box, also ties work incentives to food assistance. This is a major step toward quelling the perception that we are only precipitating future health issues in a poor population while they are resigned to a cycle of poverty and workless dependence.
It also serves as a common-sense measure that is nearly impossible to complain about. The food is, according to the budget, being delivered to the home. People not on assistance pay Blue Apron solid dollars weekly for that kind of service. Complaints will, with time, fall on many an unsympathetic ear.
But these apparent benefits do leave some significant questions. While the states are afforded some level of flexibility in how they choose to administer the Harvest Box (this would presumably include whether or not to deliver or set up pick-up stations, for one) part of the big sell on the Harvest Box is the delivery aspect. Yet, as CNBC points out, states that do elect to set up a delivery service would be relying upon bureaucracy to handle a massive undertaking that would require regular administration. One can only imagine the outrage directed at the government if and when a food delivery cycle hits a rough patch.
And, at least one person has said that the savings the government sees from buying wholesale would be negated by several factors seemingly inherent to the Harvest Box plan.
"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," FMI chief public policy officer Jennifer Hatcher said. "Retailers are looking to the administration to reduce red tape and regulations, not increase them with proposals such as this one." (CNBC)
Then, there’s the question of who the government will buy the food from, who will benefit, and who will be hurt by the new system financially. Again referring to CNBC, food stamps account for approximately 7.5% of sales in grocery chains, and stores aren’t going to be happy if they are circumvented as part of the plan to buy the Harvest Box items at wholesale prices. Yet, certain wholesalers could prove elated at the thought of having the U.S. government as a built-in customer on a regular basis.
So, somebody’s gotta win, and somebody’s gotta lose. Certain brands, wholesalers, and grocers will come out on the right or wrong side of the Harvest Box plan, assuming that it moves forward. Countless gas stations and corner stores will likely see their business decline precipitously. Time will provide more details with respect to these decisions and realities.
But, these winners and losers are precisely part of the Harvest Box plan. Undoubtedly, the respective nutrition of those receiving SNAP will be a winner. If the USDA isn’t off by a factor of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, the U.S. taxpayer can be expected to come out on the right side of this proposal, too.
Regardless of financial savings, the taxpayer will have little room to make arguments in the vain of SNAP being a conduit for mass sales of Red Bull, Coca-Cola and candy, as many currently do. They can rest easier knowing that the health of those on SNAP is being helped by the new program, too, instead of the current system which has shown a strong correlation to significantly higher obesity rates.
So, while many logistical questions remain to be answered, it seems as if the Harvest Box has some significant merit and on-its-face benefit to most everybody involved.