Yesterday, the Trump administration released its proposed budget for FY 2019. The included 2019 SNAP budget proposal, if adopted, would make major structural changes to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. In addition to deep cuts and changes to eligibility requirements, the administration proposes replacing half the monthly EBT allotment with a distribution of prepackaged foods. According to an NPR article on the SNAP budget proposal,
Under the proposal, which was announced Monday, low-income Americans who receive at least $90 a month — just over 80 percent of all SNAP recipients — would get about half of their benefits in the form of a “USDA Foods package.” The package was described in the budget as consisting of “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.” The boxes would not include fresh fruits or vegetables.
As noted in the proposed article, any individual or family that receives at least $90 in SNAP benefits would see half of those benefits replaced with a box of food chosen for them by the federal government. The budget proposal contains few details about how the distribution would be accomplished, but the most likely scenario is troublesome for a number of reasons. In addition to removing the individuals’ choice – something that probably makes any authoritarian heart beat a little faster – it could have far-reaching economic and health consequences for individuals, small farmers, and local communities.
Currently, each SNAP household receives an electronic benefits card. Each month, the monthly allotment of food stamps, which varies according to family income, is loaded to the EBT card once a month. Recipients then use the card at local grocery stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, and some farmers markets, farm stands and CSAs. Research shows that every dollar of SNAP benefits distributed generates about $1.79 in economic benefit, much of it in the local community. That’s why the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – more popularly known as the Stimulus Bill – included an increase to SNAP benefits across the board.
What’s Wrong with the 2019 SNAP Budget Proposal
The NPR article goes into some detail about the effects of the proposed 2019 SNAP budget proposal on individuals and families. In a nutshell, distributing food instead of “money”
- increases bureaucracy and overhead administration costs, which reduces the amount of money available for benefits
- limits the choice of foods that recipients can prepare for their families
- increases stigma on households receiving aid
- forces households to go to designated distribution points to pick up food
- requires dedicated infrastructure – including transportation, warehousing and distribution
The proposed “food box” reverses many positive changes that have been won over the past few years, most notably through programs like HIP – the Healthy Incentives Program. These programs offer an increase in SNAP benefits that’s tied to increasing purchases and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, and locally sourced meats and other food items. Eating more fresh produce is positively linked to better health outcomes. The Trump administration’s food box proposal reduces the amount of benefits that can be spent on healthier, local options, and instead substitutes canned fruits and vegetables. While the most recent research suggests that fresh fruit and vegetables are as nutritious as canned fruits and vegetables, the devil is in the details. Nearly every study includes a caution about the amount of added sodium or sugar in canned foods. The nutritional value of the food distributed in these food boxes will be entirely dependent on those little details.
Who Wins in the 2019 SNAP Budget Proposal
It’s hard to say who will benefit financially from the budget proposal becase the article glosses over a few important points. The proposal is noticeably light on details that would tell us how it will be carried out. That’s a deliberate choice – the administration cites giving states “substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships or commercial/retail delivery services.” What exactly does that mean?
If you pick that statement apart, tt looks a great deal like money going into the hands of large commercial food producers, food service delivery companies, and trucking companies instead of the hands of local farmers and local retailers. It looks like cutting in half the EBT benefits that accrue to local retailers – remember, when SNAP recipients spend their money at a grocery store, it increases the profits of that store and helps keep local people employed. It looks like states buying canned, dried and processed foods from processors and distributing them to individuals rather than allowing individuals to purchase their foods from local producers. Names like Sysco and Aramark – two of the largest commercial food service companies – come immediately to mind. Why wouldn’t state procurers, faced with the sudden requirement to distribute food to SNAP participants – turn to companies that have the proven capacity and ability to procure, process and deliver large amounts of canned, dried and processed foods?
The Farm Bill and SNAP Budget
The NPR article notes that many of the experts they spoke to are skeptical about the chances of the 2019 SNAP budget proposal being enacted. Congress largely ignored the administration’s proposal last year, they point out. It’s important to remember that this year, Congress is debating and renewing the Farm Bill, which largely funds SNAP. Your elected representatives need to hear from you about how important it is to keep SNAP strong, not only for the individuals who rely on it to feed their families more nutritious food, but for the local community as a whole.