Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last Monday, the Trump Administration proposed a change to the food stamp program, which would replace 40% of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits with new ‘Harvest Boxes,’ stocked with non-perishable items purchased in bulk by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to the Administration, 16.4 million American households would receive these boxes, saving the government nearly $130 billion over the next decade. No specifics were given on how these boxes would accommodate dietary restrictions, allergies, or food preferences for picky eaters (particularly children). These boxes have, rightfully, been compared to Depression-era soup lines or Soviet-era food rations, both programs that prioritized agribusiness just as much as the welfare of the poor.
The other comparison? Blue Apron.
In his Monday briefing, budget director Mick Mulvaney described the new boxes as a ‘Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash.” The boxes are billed as more efficient and more useful to hungry families, much in the way Blue Apron is.
Here’s what’s on Blue Apron’s menu for the week (among other things): harissa-glazed chicken drumsticks with potato wedges and zucchini, ginger pork meatballs with cabbage and jasmine rice, and spicy sweet potato chili with white beans and cheddar quesadillas – all coming in at $9.99 per person per meal.
The Harvest Box menu? Cereal, pasta, and other grain-based non-perishables that support the corn industry; maybe canned meats and vegetables if you’re lucky. Nothing fresh, nothing raw, nothing locally-grown. Oh, and the government is spending $1.37 per meal.
Mulvaney’s comments, and Trump’s plan itself, hit home for me. I spent a year living on food stamps, as part of a stipend from an AmeriCorps program in which I was serving. I knew that on the 5th of every month, my EBT card (the new, debit-card like method in which food stamps are distributed) would be automatically reloaded with my budget for the month. I didn’t have to worry about it. I could use my food stamps from anywhere. My situation was not at all unusual – currently, around 46 million Americans receive some amount of SNAP benefits.
We have all experienced the anxiety, the frustration, at waiting for a package to come that seems to be taking too long. We have all also experienced the horrendous inefficiency that often cripples the government. Is this what we want to depend on for essential nutrients? What if you move? What if your box doesn’t come in time? What if it is stolen? Instead of giving food stamp recipients more autonomy, the proposed program would make those on welfare more dependent on the government in the short-term, constantly concerned about whether or not the next box would arrive.
These boxes could also drastically decrease the health of the country, particular those with the lowest incomes (at the same time, notably, as the Trump Administration attempts to slash Medicare and Medicaid). The Harvest Boxes exist, in large part, to allow the government to subsidize large agricultural industries, specifically the corn and soybean industries, under the guise of welfare spending. What items will not be included in these boxes? Fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, fresh dairy products. Anything produced by a local farmer.
This is actually a major change from the way food stamps currently operate. In Seattle, for example, the Fresh Bucks program will match up to $10 of EBT spending at a farmer’s market, meaning you can double your money to buy fresh produce from local farms. Fresh Bucks make these spaces accessible – the $20 I spent on farmer’s market vegetables every week both allowed me to diversify my own diet, and supported local Seattle-area farms. California has a similar program, and allows food stamps to be used at certain local restaurants and food trucks to support local business.
The Harvest Box program stigmatizes food stamps; its implication is that those receiving benefits cannot be trusted to shop and meal plan on their own. It reduces autonomy, health, and opportunities for any creative thinking among recipients. It also reduces choice – I talked to parents of my students, who saved a little extra to buy traditional foods for Eid, while I was saving mine to buy matzah for Passover. The Harvest Box program is an egregious attempt by the Trump Administration to support large-scale agribusiness at the expense of a huge number of Americans. It is simply the most recent in a seemingly-unending string of instances of the Trump Administration putting businesses’ profits ahead of the needs of the American people.
Featured image courtesy of The Smirking Chimp.