The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is back, this time buried deep within the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. The Trump administration proposes to cut almost $200 billion from SNAP funding over the next 10 years by replacing about half the value of current transfer payments with boxes containing government-picked, American-produced, nonperishable food. Families would continue to receive the other half of SNAP benefits as they do now. The program, developed internally at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would apply to households receiving at least $90 a month in SNAP benefits, more than 80 percent of the program’s recipients.
In the wake of its release, many anti-hunger groups came out against the proposal, arguing the policy would be economically inefficient as well as paternalistic and stigmatizing to families receiving SNAP benefits. The so-called “harvest boxes” would literally label the doorstep of homes with families in need of government assistance. It would also limit choice and control over their food consumption.
Politico quoted several anti-hunger groups and professionals, comparing the proposal to wartime or Depression-era rationing. Mick Mulvaney, on the other hand, compared the program to Blue Apron and heralded it for keeping up with the modern era—which, of, course, begs the question: why wouldn’t you simply facilitate SNAP benefit redemption at pre-existing online sources, like Amazon, instead of creating a new program in its entirety?
Outside of advocacy circles, the story has largely been relegated to a one-shot news headline. This policy deserves attention from all of us though, not only because it lacks respect for low-income families but because it could create lasting, devastating impacts on food accessibility in areas of poverty. It’s another poignant example of misleading economics by the current administration.
Harvest boxes would create food deserts by rendering grocery stores and supermarkets financially unsustainable in areas where much of their revenue comes from SNAP benefit redemption. Currently 2,851 authorized retailers participate in SNAP in Colorado, and in 2016 they redeemed a total of $728 million in SNAP benefits—most of which went to supermarkets and superstores, Safeway, Costco, and the like, where prices tend to be lowest. Branches of those grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods often rely on SNAP benefits to remain in business.
It’s not always good to follow the grocery lobby, but here retailer opposition to the policy foreshadows not just loss in corporate profit but the shutdown of supermarkets in the areas they’re most needed; cutting in half the money beneficiary families can spend on food would drive businesses away from low-income areas. At the same time, families living in those neighborhoods still need to supply the other half—more importantly, the healthier half—of food purchases from local stores. The quandary is predictable: families will receive nonperishable food reliably but have diminished access to fresh produce, dairy, and meat. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to see how harvest boxes could be a healthier alternative to the current program.
SNAP is also an economic stimulus tool; every $1 spent on the SNAP program generates $1.79 in additional economic activity. Cutting $130 billion from the SNAP program—as the administration hopes to do with the food box proposal—would thus take a more than proportional amount of money out of circulation in local economies. It’s important to emphasize, too, that this so-called $130 billion in deficit reduction is measured at the federal level while the administrative costs of the program are handed off to states. Whatever states must spend to establish delivery networks for food boxes is not counted in budget numbers reported by the White House. As such, the predicted “deficit reduction” is more deficit transfer across levels of government, with state-level budgets for other social service programs likely to become casualties of the process.
While touting the food boxes as “100 percent American-produced” might seem politically savvy, no one in the White House has suggested a way of doing so that does not tie the U.S. government even more tightly to the big agriculture producers so many view with skepticism. The SNAP program needs more funding, not less, and this proposal is only “modern” in that it underscores the willingness of our current government to manipulate research and budget math to mislead the public. Sorry, you lost me at “nonperishable.”