Schwartz: Trump administration’s proposal to overhaul SNAP is absurd

Alex Schwartz, Assistant Opinion Editor

I’ll preface this column with my deeply held conviction that food assistance programs are vital to the survival of low-income people in this country. There are a host of reasons why food stamps work and why we should work every day to improve and destigmatize them. Refusing to support these programs is cold and ignorant, and disregards the fact that there are people in this country who are so unfairly poor that they literally can’t afford to feed themselves.

The Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposal, released this Monday, cuts $17.2 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2019 and $213.5 billion from it over the next 10 years. The budget also makes significant cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department and Department of Education, among others. It is important to note the unlikelihood of these cuts actually being passed by Congress, which is tasked with actually enacting budget measures into law. Even so, this proposal is still an important, definitive measure of the White House’s priorities.

The proposed cut to SNAP is especially concerning, however, because it overhauls SNAP’s signature “food stamp” system and replaces it with so-called “USDA America’s Harvest Boxes,” which would be delivered directly to SNAP-eligible families. The administration’s budget director called it a “Blue Apron-type program,” arguing that it would save the government money and help improve the diets of SNAP recipients.

It’s funny how the White House refers to this as a “Blue Apron-type program” considering that no fresh foods will be delivered in America’s Harvest Boxes, which will mostly contain nonperishable items like shelf-stable milk, cereal and canned fruit and vegetables. In addition, I have trouble understanding how individual states will be able to distribute food boxes to the over 20 million households that currently receive SNAP benefits, especially when Blue Apron, which does this exclusively, caters to fewer than a million customers.

To be fair, the USDA does currently operate the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides food boxes to low-income elderly folks, but only 600,000 people use this program. I don’t see how the USDA could operate a program like this at such a massive scale while still managing to save money.

The current SNAP program doesn’t even technically involve “food stamps.” Qualifying individuals receive a debit card that can only be used to purchase food at qualifying supermarkets and other grocery retailers. The card does not work for beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, tobacco, household items, medicines or hot foods, leading me to wonder why politicians feel that SNAP recipients cannot be trusted to purchase their own food.

Moreover, there is no proof that these prepackaged ingredients will result in healthier meals for low-income people. In fact, they’ve already been detrimental to Native American communities through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, which ships boxes of food products to Native people living on reservations. While recipients have some options to choose from, none of them are fresh and most are full of refined fats and sugars. These processed foods have contributed to extremely high rates of obesity and related chronic illnesses like diabetes and cancer in Native communities.

There are a host of other logistical problems the USDA could run into, especially when scaling this process up to millions of families. How will those with allergies be accounted for? How are people supposed to eat if package delivery problems arise? What do homeless recipients without permanent addresses do to receive their packages? Just imagine any problem you can think of when getting a package, and apply that to something that’s actually necessary to your survival: food. “America’s Harvest Boxes” would complicate SNAP beyond recognition.

Republicans, champions of a free market, should despise this. Making the government in charge of distributing subsidized food is a bureaucratic disaster waiting to happen. It baffles me how a political party so dead-set against big government is willing to give the government way too much responsibility in an area it is ill-equipped to deal with. This ridiculous proposal suggests that the Trump administration is willing to abandon its conservative principles if it means taking money away from programs that help poor people.

There’s also the question of who would stand to benefit from this new system. Yes, there is evidence to support that big food companies benefit financially from SNAP as it is. But, if anything, I imagine this food box program being even more corrupt — which food brands will be included in these boxes, and how will that be decided?

I take comfort in the fact that this budget proposal is unlikely to actually see the light of day in Congress. But it exposes a laughable hypocrisy in conservatism: that the principles of small government and a free market only apply to legislation about corporations and the super-rich — not people who need food assistance. SNAP could be improved a number of ways, but this proposal is far too many steps in the wrong direction.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.