Federal ‘food box’ notion might have some merit

posted March 5, 2018 8:42 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Editor | heidi.clausen@ecpc.com

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President Donald Trump’s recently released 2019 budget called for deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to the tune of almost $214 billion, or about a third, over the next decade. Tucked inside that proposal, as a way to reduce program costs and the number of people on food stamps, was a food box concept that has drawn widespread criticism.

About half of food stamp benefits would be replaced with pre-assembled boxes of processed and packaged goods delivered to recipients’ doorsteps. Vehemently opposed to the idea are nutrition experts, advocacy groups and lawmakers who called the “America’s Harvest Box” notion highly offensive to low-income families because it would strip them of the freedom to choose the groceries they buy. Democratic lawmakers went so far as to call it “a cruel joke” and “not a serious proposal.”

Boxes would include 100 percent American-grown foods such as shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-to-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables and would account for about half of a person’s SNAP benefits; the rest of the benefits would be still distributed on debit cards that recipients could continue to use at farmers’ markets.

Speaking at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent annual meeting, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended the food box proposal, saying his staff consulted with a range of experts to develop the plan, through which food could be bought wholesale vs. retail, saving taxpayers money. It also could help improve diets and be a boost for agriculture by using surplus production.

“I challenged (our food nutrition group) to come up with new ideas about how we could do more. How can we get a healthy, nutritious staple diet to people who need that? They were creative in their approach,” Perdue said, adding that his staff “consulted with people in the delivery business, people in the food bank business who do this on a regular basis. And there’s a lot more consulting to do.”

Perdue admitted the plan is a work in progress, but it is fundamentally rooted in the idea that new technology can create opportunities.

“Think about the box of staples being delivered to the home,” he said. “There are a lot of advantages here and I believe if people will listen to us, I can talk about those advantages and give them an opportunity to find holes in the program. But this is a new idea, it’s innovative and we have to determine to work out the details.”

Although it could be difficult to roll out nationwide, Perdue said he’s committed to continuing to explore the idea with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. He said he sees a potential partnership with the U.S. Postal Service and a possible scenario in which families could choose what goes into their box each month. He said he hopes Congress will at least allow the USDA to develop a pilot program and see if it works at some level.

“There are a lot of things to talk about, and rather than just dismissing it offhand, let’s decide how we can improve,” Perdue said.

Food insecurity continues to pose a serious problem in this country, with about 43 million Americans receiving monthly SNAP benefits. While it’s key to address poverty and other factors that make it difficult for people to find enough to eat, we also need to figure out better ways to route food to those who need it most — and that includes a surprising percentage of rural residents.

Jordan Rasmussen of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs said the help provided through SNAP is critical to rural America, helping stave off hunger in one of six rural households. Rather ironic, really, since that’s where the bulk of our food is grown.

“As policymakers deliberate the funding and future of SNAP in the 2018 Farm Bill and broader entitlement reforms, SNAP must be recognized as an investment in rural communities,” Rasmussen said. “SNAP is, and needs to be, maintained as a critical safeguard against food insecurity and poverty for rural residents.”

Formerly known simply as the food stamp program, rural America’s SNAP participation rate rose from 12.5 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2015, exceeding the national average. Overall SNAP enrollments have declined following the Great Recession. However, rural SNAP rates have remained high as those economies have been slow to bounce back.

“Given the broader socioeconomics of rural America, the importance of SNAP is heightened,” Rasmussen said. “SNAP exists as a resource to help negate concerns of food security for seniors with limited incomes as they care for themselves and balance expenses. The program is also a resource for families with children under the age of 18, providing nutrition that is essential for childhood development. A greater percentage of rural households among both of these demographic groups participate in SNAP than do nationally.”

The logistics of a nationwide delivery of food boxes remain to be seen; it may not be practical and certainly isn’t a full solution. But perhaps it could be some part of the mix in addressing food insecurity. It would be a mistake to dismiss the idea outright out of pure political motive. At the very least, it’s worth exploring.

Let’s keep the new ideas coming and the conversation going.

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