About 16.4 million people who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would not have a say in how to spend about half of their monthly benefits under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year.
Low-income Americans who receive at least $90 a month would see "about half" of their benefits come in the form of a nonperishable, American-grown “USDA Foods package,” or a "Harvest Box," according to a news release Monday from the USDA, which runs SNAP.
The package was described in the budget as consisting of “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meats and canned fruit and vegetables.” The boxes would not include fresh fruits or vegetables. Currently, SNAP beneficiaries can buy what they want with all of their monthly benefits as long as it falls under the guidelines.
The administration says the move is a “cost-effective approach” with “no loss in food benefits to participants.” Trump is looking to reduce the USDA's budget by $213 billion between the 2019 and 2028 fiscal years.
What isn’t clear is how the food would be distributed to millions of SNAP recipients who live all over the country, including dense urban areas and sparsely populated rural regions. The budget says states will have “substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships or commercial/retail delivery services.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says the Harvest Box program would keep "the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive," mentions the states' flexibility and also says it's "responsible to the taxpayers." Perdue said in early December that he wanted states to have more flexibility in doling out SNAP, announcing the agency wanted to hear about programs from states that don’t increase the cost of the program and will combat what he said is fraud and waste.
It also isn’t clear whether the boxes will come with directions on how to cook the foods inside.
"We know that taste is something that is hard to dictate, and I think you may end up providing a lot of food to people that they won't eat," says Bruce Meyer, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Public Policy at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Business.
Meyer, who has studied food stamp policy for 20 years, says the idea could work if it was like Peapod, the food delivery service, bringing healthy food to people. But, he says, "the current system of just putting money on your EBT card is very inexpensive and efficient and flexible. This looks like it might be none of those things."
Meyer also says that he thinks this might be a way for "food businesses that have excess food that they're unable to sell ... to get it off their warehouse shelves."
Nutrition programs, including SNAP, made up about 80 percent of the USDA’s budget in the most recent farm bill, making it the largest portion of agency spending. About 44 million people participated in SNAP each month in 2016, at a cost of $70.9 billion. Nearly two-thirds were under 18, over 60 or disabled, according to the USDA.
Congress largely ignored Trump’s proposed budget for SNAP last year, when he wanted to cut the funding by a quarter. This time, it’s a farm bill year, meaning many budgetary decisions will be made among the House and Senate agriculture committees. GOP Rep. Mike Conway of Texas and GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who head the committees, said in a joint statement that they are "committed to ... continuing to improve our nation's nutrition programs."
For more reaction, visit NPR's The Salt blog.