Problems With Proposed Food Assistance Reforms By Nicky Riordan
The Trump administration raised eyebrows early this week when it unveiled a controversial FY2019 budget plan that included new proposals to reduce costs among social service programs. One of the more interesting components involves food assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
Named “America’s Harvest Box,” the proposed overhaul of SNAP would substitute monthly delivery of pre-chosen items for up to half the value of a recipients’ food stamps allowance. The administration tried to sell the overhaul by comparing it to a “high-end meal delivery kit,” but this ignores some important differences between those who use meal delivery kits and those facing food insecurity.
The SNAP program and food assistance efforts in the United States in general are not without flaws or need for reform, yet this proposal creates more challenges than it solves. The proposed structure reflects key elements of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), a program that leverages excess product from American agricultural output by processing and packaging food for low-income Americans.
Although TEFAP represents an important collaboration between agricultural and food assistance interests in the country, the program often fails to meet the need of its recipients due to a lack of choice and nutritious options. This not only leads to needless food waste, but less assistance overall to those who need it most.
Food insecure families and individuals are often most at risk for health complications due to a lack of access to nutritious food and inability to address existing conditions such as diabetes. This proposal doesn’t address the need for more access to fresh produce in food insecure households, and in fact replaces funding that can be used to purchase healthy food with pre-chosen processed items.
Through the TEFAP structure, excess agricultural products are processed for longevity – for example, fresh grapes are turned into raisins or juice concentrate, which are less healthy and higher in sugar than the original product. In many parts of the countries, SNAP benefits can also be matched or doubled at farmers markets to purchase local, fresh produce. Cutting the funds available for families to use on more fresh and nutritious food undermines the positive benefits of the program.
Changes suggested in this proposal fail to address the needs of special populations that utilize SNAP benefits. SNAP funds can used by seniors or disabled recipients without access to a kitchen or ability to prepare food to buy hot meals at restaurants, and they also give individuals facing homelessness the freedom to purchase food that fits their unique needs.
Most notably for fiscal conservatives, SNAP is a powerhouse program for local economies. SNAP funding creates jobs, increases economic activity, and reduces associated costs for low income families, such as health care. As I have written previously, attempts to further restrict SNAP often fail and waste government money because the program is extremely effective and lean as is. Substituting money to purchase food at a grocery store or farmers market for pre-chosen products that may or may not meet the needs of the family is robbing recipients of the value of their benefit and making the program less effective overall.
If the Trump administration wants to improve SNAP and the delivery of food assistance, they can promote innovative ideas that come from experts in the field. Although the need for delivery exists, it is only among specific populations such as those living in rural areas, and this should be tied to online choice as well.
There is a clear consensus among advocates that current overhaul proposals like “America’s Harvest Box” and block grants are not the answer, and that the ability of recipients to choose the food that is best for them and their family provides better outcomes in the program and for the economy. A major overhaul of SNAP has not occurred in decades despite relentless attempts by Republican lawmakers, so the passage of a proposal like this is highly unlikely; but it will be important to keep an eye on the initial responses of Congressional Republicans in the coming weeks to signal support for key proposals like this one.
Nicky Riordan, Political Analyst, Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research