It’s similarly unclear what would happen to the bodegas, grocery stores, and big-box retailers that benefit from customers spending their SNAP money, generating roughly $1.80 in economic activity for every $1 in benefits. “Fierce competition in the food-retail industry drives consumer prices down, therefore benefiting those on a limited food budget more than anyone,” said Greg Ferrara of the National Grocers Association, the lobbying group for supermarkets. The association is “extremely concerned with the president’s budget proposal, as it abandons the proven free-market model on the ill-advised assumption that the government can purchase and provide food more efficiently than its current private-sector partners.”
Other questions left unaddressed: what would happen if boxes went missing, what would happen during hurricanes and snowstorms, how the USDA would accommodate homeless SNAP recipients, whether it had done studies of the nutrition and health impact of the boxes, what kind of calorie and macronutrient counts they would contain, how it would decide what went in the boxes, whether companies could lobby on the contents of the boxes, whether states could opt out, whether the boxes would create social stigma, whether food producers were on board with the proposal, and whether projected rates of food insecurity would fall.
“We don’t know why this was developed, nor how it would work, nor why it would be a benefit to anybody,” said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research & Action Center, a leading anti-hunger nonprofit. “I haven’t found anybody who was consulted, nor anybody who understands it. The retailers aren’t clamoring for a proposal like this, nor were we, nor were the food bankers, nor were recipients. It’s hard for me to even understand why USDA would want to impose that kind of work on themselves.”
I asked the USDA whether it had held meetings with stakeholders in developing the plan, and who had advised them on it. “Since he was sworn into office, Secretary Perdue has traveled thousands of miles all across the country, visiting over 30 states to meet with people whose lives are impacted by the work we are doing at USDA and to hear their concerns,” a spokesman responded.
Perhaps, as with so many things Trump, the proposal was never meant to be taken literally. Republicans on the Hill have indicated that they have no intention of adopting it, and the administration doesn’t appear to be doing any legwork to get them behind it, either. Trump officials described it to The New York Times as something of a policy troll, a “gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party.”
But that does not mean it was not meant seriously. The harvest-box proposal is one of many made by the Trump administration that would increase the restrictiveness and paternalism of the country’s major safety-net programs—by having the government pick out people’s food for them, imposing work requirements on Medicaid recipients and expanding their use in SNAP, drug testing recipients of unemployment benefits, and slashing rental assistance for able-bodied individuals. Those reforms have come hand-in-hand with requests for deep, deep budget cuts, including $200 billion to SNAP, made through the implementation of the harvest-box proposal as well as changes to eligibility and benefit levels in the current voucher program. Nutrition experts fear that the policy impact of those cuts would be straightforward: deeper poverty and more hunger.