Trump Administration Seems To Be Winging It On Food Stamp Replacement Boxes

The White House is not very serious about making food stamps like Blue Apron.

WASHINGTON ― As part of a symbolic budget that would slash domestic spending, President Donald Trump this week proposed replacing some monthly food stamp benefits with a cardboard box of nonperishable goods.  

The “America’s Harvest Box,” as the Trump administration calls it, is an idea that apparently nobody outside the administration has ever heard of ― and one that the administration itself may not have vetted very carefully.

On Monday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney likened it to a “Blue Apron-type program,” referring to the gourmet meal delivery service. But the budget documents describing the program don’t mention anything about funds for shipping food to people’s homes. The documents say it would actually be up to states to handle distribution.

During a hearing on the budget Wednesday, Rep. Suzan Delbene (D-Wash.) asked Mulvaney how much it would cost to package and distribute the boxes, whether the government would set up a database of people’s dietary restrictions and how boxes would find their way to people with unstable housing.

“Have you thought through any of these things?” Delbene said.

Mulvaney didn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he said the government could save money by buying food wholesale instead of giving the money to food stamp recipients to shop in retail stores. And he said Democrats should love the food box idea.

“Democrats have actually supported this program in the past,” Mulvaney said.

That’s news to Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the House subcommittee overseeing food stamps.

“I never heard this idea broached even once,” McGovern told HuffPost. “It’s a stupid idea. It’s a cruel joke.”

The America’s Harvest Box proposal is based on the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which distributes monthly food boxes to about 600,000 seniors across the country. Democrats do like that program, though support for a tiny commodity distribution initiative is not the same as support for radically remaking food stamps in the tiny program’s image.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are formally known, is one of the biggest safety net programs in the United States, with 42 million beneficiaries in 20 million households. The average benefit per recipient last year was about $125. The money is deposited each month on special debit cards that can be used in grocery stores for almost any food item.

In other words, SNAP is about 70 times bigger than the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which only serves people older than 60 and doesn’t necessarily deliver to homes.

In Washington, D.C., the commodity program is called Grocery Plus and is administered by the Capital Area Food Bank. A spokeswoman for the charity said that of the 5,400 D.C. seniors enrolled in the program, only about 130 get home delivery, for which they qualify due to lack of mobility. Of the remaining beneficiaries, 20 percent pick up their food box at a central distribution site and the rest receive the boxes at apartment buildings and low-income senior housing facilities.  

Though Mulvaney said the food boxes would resemble Blue Apron, a USDA fact sheet said distribution would be left up to states, with apparently no Blue Apron-style requirements. “States can distribute these boxes through existing infrastructure, partnerships, and/or directly to residences through commercial and/or retail delivery services,” the fact sheet said.

There are roughly 70,000 households receiving food stamp in D.C., so in the unlikely scenario that Congress were to approve the America’s Harvest Box program, the Capital Area Food Bank would likely be called on to help with distribution. 

“Scaling up to meet the need of 70,000-plus households would really overwhelm the existing system,” Hillary Salmon, a spokeswoman for the food bank, said in an interview, adding that current USDA food box recipients often say they wish the boxes came with fresh produce. 

Blue Apron boxes typically have lots of fresh produce, to be used as ingredients in fancy home-cooked meals. America’s Harvest boxes would have none. 

A USDA spokesman said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue himself came up with the idea for the food boxes, which had never been discussed during dozens of committee hearings on food stamps over the past three years.

Stacy Dean, a nutrition expert with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a blog post that “this new proposal to support individual households would require operational capacity and infrastructure that neither USDA nor states now have.”

The Trump budget would cut SNAP by about 25 percent, saving more than $200 billion over 10 years largely through the theoretical savings of the food boxes. According to a description of the proposal, households receiving more than $90 per month would get a portion of their benefits as a food box, “which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.”

The budget also calls for new restrictions on benefits for nondisabled adults, which Republicans on Capitol Hill have said they plan to push for this year.  

Blue Apron, for its part, declined to comment.