President Trump's Hunger Games

The administration’s proposal to overhaul SNAP would squeeze the nutrition safety net, and make it more paternalistic.

A Ralph's grocery store employee loads a cart for a customer in Los Angeles. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

This week, as part of its 2019 budget request, the Trump administration put forward a radical new policy proposal. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—SNAP, commonly known as food stamps—would reduce the amount of money given to lower-income families to help them buy groceries and would instead send food directly to them. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney described it as a “Blue Apron-type program” that would cut costs and provide better food to recipients. “We thought it was a tremendous idea,” he said at a press conference on Monday.

The idea does have some intuitive appeal: The delivery program might better reach families in food deserts, far from grocery stores and farmers markets. The government might be able to purchase wholesale food cheaper, stretching SNAP dollars further. The delivery boxes might make lower-income parents’ lives easier, and help ensure that healthy calories make their way to the nutritionally insecure.

But policy experts questioned the cost of building and scaling up such a food-distribution system. More generally, they were bewildered by the unusual, untested, and unheard-of proposal. The unveiling of the “America’s harvest box,” as the administration branded it, raises dozens of thorny policy questions about efficacy, fairness, and overhead costs. More broadly, it demonstrates the Trump administration’s intention to make the social safety net more paternalistic, and far smaller.

The harvest-box initiative would transform the SNAP program from a voucher system into a ration system, thus exchanging a market-based policy structure feted by neoliberals and conservatives—one in which consumers spend money at local businesses—for a direct-provision structure more commonly associated with low-income, socialist countries. Households receiving more than $90 a month in SNAP benefits would start receiving a monthly box of shelf-stable foods—such as juice, grains, cereal, pasta, peanut butter, and canned meat and vegetables—while still receiving some money via an electronic benefit-transfer card. The Department of Agriculture estimated that 16.4 million households, or four in five of those currently participating in the program, would be affected.

In launching the proposal, the administration stressed its cost-effectiveness: It argued that it could purchase food at half its retail price, stretching the taxpayer’s dollar twice as far and saving $129.2 billion over 10 years. The America’s harvest box would be “a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “It maintains the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive, provides states flexibility in administering the program, and is responsible to the taxpayers.”

But the plan contains no detail on how the government would create an apparatus to purchase, divvy up, package, and ship American products to so many families. It also doesn’t have a budget for doing so, instead offering states $2.5 billion in new administrative funds and directing them to figure out how to send the “boxes through existing infrastructure, partnerships, and/or directly to residences through commercial and/or retail delivery services.”

Experts on both the right and the left questioned how such a proposal could possibly scale up—state SNAP programs would need to ship roughly 200 million heavy boxes a year—and how it could possibly be cheaper than the existing benefit-card system, which piggybacks on the operational and logistical capacity of the country’s grocery businesses. “This new proposal to support individual households would require operational capacity and infrastructure that neither USDA nor states now have,” wrote Stacy Dean, a food-assistance expert at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank. “This unprecedented proposal puts access to food at risk for one in 10 Americans on the faulty assumption that government can buy and provide food more efficiently than millions of American households.”

The plan also doesn’t address the issue of consumer choice, and what would happen to families with dietary restrictions. That the government picks the wrong groceries, provides too little fresh food, does not respond to recipients’ feedback, and does not provide a good variety of foods are all common complaints about the small food-distribution programs the government already has in place for seniors, Native Americans, food banks, and emergency situations. “Customers want their butter back,” Gloria Goodwin of the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota told legislators at a hearing on one USDA food-box program, complaining that the government had switched butter for margarine “without tribal consultation.” (A USDA spokesman said that “there will be exemptions for those with religious, dietary, and other restrictions,” without providing more information.)

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.