The "Harvest Box" plan would be a huge disaster for millions of people

By Tim Nelson
Updated February 14, 2018
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Credit: Photo by tmarvin via Getty Images

Has Mick Mulvaney been listening to too many podcasts recently? It’s an odd question, but a necessary one. That’s because the Office of Management and Budget director told reporters this week that the US Department of Agriculture plans to overhaul the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as “food stamps”) via a “Blue-Apron type program."

The “Harvest Box” plan would essentially transfer some of the funding that normally puts money on a SNAP recipient’s EBT card into a prepackaged box of made-in-America foodstuffs like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, juice, and a whole host of other less-than-nutritious options. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue touted the effort as a chance to provide “nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families” while saving the federal government somewhere around $130 million in savings. But from a logistical, nutritional, and philosophical standpoint, the program is a terrible idea.

Before Mulvaney pointed to Blue Apron as a model, he should have stopped to consider the company’s financials. The meal delivery company hasn’t turned a profit since mid-2016, and its customer base has shrunk 15 percent year over year. The 42.2 million Americans who qualified for SNAP in 2017 received $125.79 per person per month on average, whereas it would cost a family of four in Brooklyn $139.84 each week to receive four meals from Blue Apron. That cost might explain why the “Harvest Box” will almost definitely exclude fresh meat or produce. You know, the whole point of ordering a meal delivery kit.

Though the math doesn’t add up already, things look even more ghastly in the context of the SNAP budget cutbacks proposed for the years ahead. The newly-released budget plans to cut funding for the program by $17.2 billion in 2019, more than 25 percent of its total operating budget for 2017. Total cuts could near $200 billion over a ten-year period. This means less to spend on the logistics required to deliver meals to the poor (who can often lack permanent addresses), and the possibility that the quality of food offerings will further degrade over time.

The program will also be harmful for grocers of all sizes, including the very same small businesses that conservatives constantly hold up as the paragons of free enterprise. As Quartz argues, transactions made with EBT cards (which don’t allow for the purchase of alcohol, cigarettes, household products, or prepared foods) still provide billions of dollars to grocers across the country. Removing that money from the marketplace could have unseen economic consequences even for those not living in poverty.

Perhaps most importantly, the program continues the assault on the dignity of America’s welfare recipients that began during Bill Clinton’s reform efforts in the 1990’s. At best, it blames ignorance—rather than the daunting task of living on just $1.40 per person per meal—for a lack of nutrition among the underprivileged. At worst, it grossly overestimates the incidence of EBT fraud, which the Obama-era USDA said constitutes around 1.5 percent of transactions. And given that the move from actual food stamps to EBT cards has been widely credited with curtailing said fraud, it’s hard to see how delivering a box of goods would improve the situation.

The very idea of the “Harvest Box” signals the Trump administration’s contempt for America’s poor SNAP recipients rather than the sources of inequality that force them to rely on government assistance to begin with. But hey, not everyone in this country deserves to eat McDonald’s for every meal.