The Trump administration’s budget proposal to turn the food-stamp program into a food-box program increases the odds that Congress will not finish the farm bill before the current one expires on Sept. 30 and may not get the job done until 2019, when the Democrats might control the House and perhaps even the Senate.
Turning the food-stamp program (officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) into mostly a food-box program is so impractical it won’t be taken seriously on Capitol Hill. But the proposal in the official budget document will mean additional debate about what President Trump might insist on before he’ll sign a farm bill.
At present, people who meet the low-income standard to qualify for SNAP get an Electronic Benefit Transfer card with benefits reloaded monthly. The purchasing power can be used in approved grocery stores, convenience stores, and farmers’ markets.
Trump’s budget plan says, “Under the proposal, households receiving $90 or more per month in SNAP benefits will receive a portion of their benefits in the form of a USDA foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish. The remainder of their benefit would go on the SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card for use at approved grocery retailers.”
The rollout of the proposal was as amateurish as the proposal itself.
Over the weekend, Produce Retailer said that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, in a speech in Las Vegas, “teased” the National Grocers Association with the statement that the Trump administration would have a “bold, new innovative approach” to SNAP, but declined to reveal details.
The grocers did not get a chance to react in person to the proposal to take away a good portion of their SNAP business, but on Tuesday NGA said the idea “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.”
On Monday, the Food Marketing Institute, another group that represents the retailers, said that its members have worked with the Agriculture Department and Congress for decades to achieve a national system, utilizing existing commercial infrastructure and technology to achieve efficiency, availability, and lowest cost. Creating a USDA food box, the group said, means “each of these achievements would be lost.”
With Perdue continuing his travels to California, it was left to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to explain the proposal to reporters. Mulvaney called the food-box program “one of the most innovative things” in the budget.
He said the food boxes would be “a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash. It lowers the cost to us because we can buy prices at wholesale, whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure that they’re getting nutritious food.”
Later in the briefing, perhaps aware that Blue Apron is an expensive service, Mulvaney said, “We are not hiring Blue Apron to do this,” and he seemed to signal that the states would provide the boxes.
Mulvaney ignored the fact that the U.S. grocery business is one of the most efficient in the world but also operates on extremely tight margins. It’s highly unlikely government at any level could buy food wholesale, package and deliver it, and save money.
Antihunger groups have been scathing in their reaction.
The Food Research & Action Center said the plan amounts to “a Rube Goldberg-designed system of commodity distribution via food boxes that will be administratively costly, inefficient, stigmatizing, and prone to failure, and that will return the country to Depression-era antihunger approaches.”
Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg pointed out that the food-box program “would require a massive new governmental bureaucracy to micromanage the food consumption of low-income Americans.”
Imagine the lobbying that would go into the government’s decisions about what to put into the food boxes—and whether the boxes would be standardized or, for example, contain different foods for diabetics.
In addition to the shift to food boxes, the administration proposes to tighten up on eligibility and save a total of $213.5 billion over 10 years.
House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee ranking member Jim McGovern has already been complaining that Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway hasn’t shared his proposal to change SNAP with the Democrats. “We need a farm bill, but I’d rather have no farm bill this year than a lousy farm bill,” McGovern told National Journal.
If he does not find the bill acceptable, McGovern said, “I will spend every waking minute to try to kill it and hopefully get a better bill next year.”
It won’t be surprising if McGovern feels compelled to do just that.