Trump Administration Floats “Food Box” Plan

by Jack Brownfield

One idea contained in the White House’s proposed 2019 fiscal budget took many observers by surprise. The proposal, championed by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, would replace roughly half the money provided to low-income families through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with boxes of food. Instead of giving recipients food stamp vouchers to buy products at a grocery store, the government would send chosen packages directly to these families. The boxes would contain a variety of nonperishable foods, all sourced from the United States. Various administration figures have claimed that the proposal would have several benefits. Mick Mulvaney, OMB Director at the White House, argued that this kind of reform could ensure more nutritious foods for food stamp recipients. He also claimed it would save the government money, and the Department of Agriculture estimated these savings at $129 billion over ten years.

Brandon Lipps, a deputy undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, raised a number of other points in support of the plan. For one, the proposal would give states flexibility in implementation. They could try partnering with private companies to deliver the food or working with existing food banks and nonprofits. By letting different states try different implementations, the plan could give rise to a more efficient system. He also pointed out that SNAP recipients would still receive half of their current food stamp vouchers. Even if a person was unsatisfied with some of the food in their food box, they could still buy more with the vouchers. Finally, Lipp insisted that the overall value for recipients would not go down and reiterated how much money the proposal would save. The change, he concluded, was “a win for SNAP recipients, taxpayers, and farmers.”

But critics from across the political spectrum were quick to paint the proposal as inefficient and insulting. Robert Graboyes and Matthew Mitchell, for example, criticized the idea from the right in Fortune. “The government—not private entrepreneurs—would decide how to source food and other inputs, how to manage logistics, and how to negotiate with vendors…isolating the program from the people who actually have to eat the stuff.” This would lead to the same kind of inefficient bureaucracy found in some other government-run enterprises. They argued that the current SNAP program, by contrast, utilizes the free market to be as efficient as possible. Consumers are able to purchase what they want from the stores they want, and then the government reimburses these vendors. Finally, Graboyes and Mitchell criticized the requirement to only send American foodstuff in the packages as “protectionist,” which would also lead to inefficiency and higher costs for the government and taxpayers.

Craig Gunderson, a professor of agriculture strategy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, even called the idea “pro-hunger,” not to mention patronizing. “All of a sudden you’re saying, ‘We don’t trust you to make the right decisions for your family,’” Gunderson said. “People will leave the program.” There is also a potential danger for people with food allergies or other dietary or religious restrictions on what they could eat. Many are doubtful that the government could account for these diverse needs while also keeping costs down. A New York Times opinion writer also criticized the proposal as cruel, pointing out that SNAP recipients are already restricted from buying many unhealthy foods. She also noted the painful stigma that society already places on food stamps recipients. To dictate exactly what they receive would be “impractical, unrealistic…and laughable.”

Others worry about the potential effect on local communities. Grocery stores, for example, worry that the proposal would lead to fewer people shopping at local vendors. “Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account,” said Jennifer Hatcher of the Food Marketing Institute, a trade organization for grocery stores, “but it would increase costs in other areas.” That is, local stores and local economies would lose out on the money that SNAP recipients would otherwise spend there. Jordan Rasmussen of the Center for Rural Affairs echoed this fear, and he emphasized how important mom-and-pop stores are for rural communities.

Opponents of the change are also doubtful it will pass into law. For one, the 2019 budget contains no information about how the idea would be implemented. USDA spokesman Tom Murtaugh, like Lipp, said that states would “have flexibility” in how they delivered boxes, and he also admitted that the estimated savings do not include the cost of shipping. And it is ultimately up to Congress, not the President or the USDA, to fund the proposal. This seems unlikely, since it was so unexpected and is opposed from so many sides. Kevin Concannon, the former administrator of SNAP, said that “the chances of this happening are the same as me captaining the next spaceship launching from Florida.”


Jack is a sophomore in the College studying English and Government and writes about domestic social and cultural issues.

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