Yesterday, the Trump administration released its fiscal year 2019 budget. For the most part, it’s similar to last year’s proposal: massive cuts to safety net programs, a big boost in military spending, and very Trump-ed up estimates of economic growth. But this year, tucked into the Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsection, the administration laid out a proposal to take away a chunk of the nutrition assistance many families rely on and replace it with a massive new food delivery program.
Under the proposal, households receiving $90 or more per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—which accounts for the vast majority of all of the households who currently participate in SNAP—will receive a portion of their assistance in the form of a box of pre-selected food. According to the USDA, which would be responsible for administering the program, the box would be filled with items like pastas, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruit, intended to “improve the nutritional value of the benefit provided and reduce the potential for EBT fraud.”
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In effect, the proposal is a paternalistic spin on Blue Apron: Instead of being able to choose food based on their nutritional and family needs, SNAP households may get standardized boxes of food that the government chooses on their behalf. Hunger and nutrition experts have panned this as “costly, inefficient, stigmatizing, and prone to failure.” A 2016 USDA study found no evidence to suggest that households who receive food stamps need the government to select their food for them—their spending habits are almost identical to other households. (The only exception is baby food—SNAP households buy a lot more of it, because they’re twice as likely to have a child under age 3.) Replacing the food that people are buying for themselves with pastas and canned fruit is likely a nutritional downgrade. And, since the food is being delivered directly to families, it’s unclear whether families will get the opportunity to provide input based on allergies or specific nutritional needs—say, to account for a peanut allergy, or for all that baby food.
As for reducing EBT fraud, the Trump Administration is offering a complicated solution for a nonexistent problem: SNAP fraud is extremely rare, and the government spends about as much money looking for SNAP fraud as it actually finds in misused funds. (As a point of comparison, the Pentagon misplaces enough money every year to fund the entire SNAP program twice.)
What’s more likely is that the proposal will become a giveaway to major agriculture companies. Creating this type of program will require a massive number of new government contracts for food, shipping, storage, and delivery. These contracts will have volume requirements that smaller farms will not be able to meet, but they’ll open the door wide to America’s “Big Ag” lobbyists—including those with close ties to Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
And given that this proposal is paired with a $214 billion cut over the coming decade—nearly one-third of total SNAP spending—as well as punishing time limits for workers who cannot find a job or get enough hours at work, it’s hard to believe this proposal is anything but malicious.
Considering Trump’s past statements on food stamps—and on poverty in general—it’s likely that malice actually is at the core of this. Remember the time that he said the only reason a protestor could be angry that he was talking about food stamps was because the protestor was fat? Or the time he said he “just doesn’t want a poor person” involved in decisions about the economy? The president sees his own wealth as the chief validator of his societal worth, and believes it makes him perfectly qualified to make choices about how low-income people live their lives. This SNAP proposal is the result of that line of thinking. It strips people of control over one of their most basic decisions—what they’re going to eat—and hands it over to a government agency. It flattens out the shades of humanity that go into our food—the garlic or chilis or cumin or fish sauce we use when we need to make dinner feel more like home, or the choice to splurge on a steak for your wife’s birthday dinner even if it means you’ll be scraping by for the rest of the month—and it replaces them with cans of fruit in a cardboard box.