The Trump administration has recently proposed an overhaul of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Called “America’s Harvest Box,” the overhaul was presented as “a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receiving the cash.”
This is a misleading comparison. Blue Apron delivers boxes of gourmet ingredients and fresh produce, meat and dairy items that clients choose in advance from a variety of menus. America’s Harvest Boxes would deliver processed foods — shelf-stable milk and canned or boxed meats, fruits, vegetables and cereal — selected by the federal government.
This represents a step back both in the access that the most vulnerable in our society have to healthy foods and in their power to exercise choice. The federal government should be strengthening SNAP, not adding more restrictions.
A common argument for the need to overhaul the SNAP program is that recipients commit fraud by trading their benefits for cash or other banned goods. Although fraud does exist, it’s minimal and has been in steady decline since the program’s inception to a rate of less than 1.5 percent today. Another argument is that the program is too costly. The SNAP program costs about $70 billion annually, but it has experienced falling rates of enrollment since 2011. Moreover, it provides an essential safety net for children and the elderly or disabled, who today are 64 percent of SNAP recipients.
Restrictions on the use of benefits have been in place since the first iteration of the program in the 1930s. Today, SNAP recipients receive on average $126 per month in benefits per family member, and they cannot purchase items such as alcohol, cigarettes and other nonfood items. Hot foods and foods that can be consumed in the place of purchase are not allowed either.
The proposed America’s Harvest Box would take restrictions to a new level, as it mandates that families receive half of their benefits in processed foods selected by the federal government. Instead of implementing additional restrictions, current ones should be reviewed and changes pursued to reflect today’s family culture. For instance, since the number of SNAP households with earnings from work has tripled since 2000, the restriction against convenience foods is outdated.
The proposed restrictions also go against SNAP program goals such as the promotion of a healthy diet among recipients. “Food deserts” — areas without ready access to healthy, fresh and affordable food — prevail in low-income communities. Today, the SNAP program mitigates food deserts by allowing recipients to use benefits to buy fresh produce at farmers markets. By forcing processed foods on recipients, America’s Harvest Box would do the exact opposite.
Moreover, being able to exercise choice in food selection is vital to feel like a respected full member of society. Studies have shown that meaningful choice and authority in life decisions positively influences empowerment and confidence levels, leading to more self-sufficiency. In other words, lack of choice is demeaning and negatively affects empowerment and movement out of poverty.
If America’s Harvest Box is implemented as planned, the problem of food insufficiency will not be addressed and new challenges may arise. One might be food waste, if the preselected items in the boxes are not desired and therefore not consumed. We should also be concerned about the impact of additional processed foods on the health of SNAP recipients — think about rates of obesity and diabetes. Studies show that children born to women living in poverty have better health outcomes in countries with access to food assistance programs. Instead of cutting costs and increasing restrictions, we should make it easier for recipients to get access to fresh vegetables and fruits and ensure they can make well-informed choices regarding their diets.
America’s Harvest Box does not appear to be a long-term investment in the people living in poverty in the United States or in their health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the SNAP program, should take a step back and examine the purpose and goals of the SNAP program and propose changes that show our government values the health and nutrition of all U.S. citizens.
Cossy Hough is a clinical assistant professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.