Food stamps bear no resemblance to Blue Apron

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist

Several headlines in past weeks incorporated the acronym SNAP alongside criticisms of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2019, which included major changes to the hunger-fighting federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. More commonly referred to as “food stamps,” compensation provided by SNAP credits some of America’s poorest families with the ability to purchase food at eligible grocery stores. This ability is administered within limits based on the need of each household and is commonly praised for fighting hunger and criticized for administering “handouts.”

The fabric of the SNAP program was recently threatened by the president’s proposed budget plan, which, according to page 128 of the plan, is “aimed at strengthening the expectation for work among able-bodied adults and preserving the benefits for those most in need.” The new plan would place a number of American families currently eligible for benefits at risk, in addition to threatening the ability for families to choose for themselves which foods to purchase.

According to the budget plan, part of SNAP aid would come to recipients in the form of a “Harvest Box” full of pre-selected food, “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 proposal claims the chosen foods would “improve the nutritional value of the benefit provided” and says that “states will have substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system.”

The idea of retracting recipients’ freedom to choose which food products to purchase exemplifies Trump’s limited understanding of poverty. Taking away the option for struggling Americans to choose what they put in their bodies can easily feel like being denied what little autonomy they are allotted in life.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told the New York Times that “the administration was painting ‘a distorted picture’ of the poor and ignoring the fact that most SNAP recipients are employed and more than a quarter are disabled and unable to seek work … The majority of people in the program are children and seniors and people working in jobs that pay too little to feed their families.”

Perhaps more troubling than the proposal itself was Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney’s explanation of the proposed changes, which he described to be “a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash.”

The first problem in Mulvaney’s statement is his boldness to compare SNAP, a federal welfare program, to a high-grossing, private business like Blue Apron. The home delivery service sends perfectly proportioned, fresh ingredients to middle- and upper-middle class buyers’ doorsteps, while, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “The average SNAP recipient received about $126 a month [in food stamps] (or about $4.20 a day, $1.40 per meal) in fiscal year 2017.”

In fact, The Washington Post reported that 40 percent of Blue-Apron subscribers dropped the program because of cost: “A recent report by the market research firm Datassential found that four in 10 lapsed meal-kit [Blue Apron] subscribers dropped their service because they were too costly.” Making this comparison clearly demonstrates the administration’s misguided understanding of poverty and inability to relate to hunger and food insecurity.

Other opponents of the program criticized the Blue-Apron-themed media attention because of its potentially distracting content; in aiming criticisms at the logistics of the new program, which largely strays from its current structure, many claim citizens are being distracted from the heart of the issue — that the program will lose 30 percent of its funding. According to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the agriculture committee, “This isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction.”

Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, agreed.

“I don’t think there’s really any support for their box plan. And, I worry that it’s a distraction from the budget’s proposal to cut SNAP by some 30 percent. That’s the real battle,” Dean said.

McCulvey also claimed that the proposed program reform “lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.” The “nutritious food” cited in the budget proposal, however, includes “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.” There is no mention of produce or anything fresh, and besides that, the notion that the government should choose which foods a family can or cannot receive is deeply problematic.

Finally, the proposed plan states that, “This cost-effective approach will generate significant savings to taxpayers with no loss in food benefits to participants.” Many critics point to the financial issues that will arise from this new plan, such as the cost of implementing an efficient system to distribute goods to the doorsteps of those in need. Additionally, the latter part of this statement implies that no loss of benefits will ensue, when in fact, the administration foresees large cuts in the number of households eligible to receive aid, on top of partially retracting the freedom of choice current food stamp recipients are able to exercise.

Yes, those who “take advantage of the system,” as many argue is the case for recipients of federal aid, do exist. But in making this statement in response to federal aid programs like SNAP, Americans look beyond the fact that many of the families on food stamps come from households of working families, and that many others are disabled or unable to work. Likewise, minimum wage is, in theory, supposed to be set at the bare minimum needed for an individual to survive in society, but as soon as another member is added to the family, it becomes impossible to adequately support additional persons. In fact, a release from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2017 said, “Almost 81% of SNAP participants [in Texas] are in families with children.” Similarly reported, “22.7% of children live below the poverty line.” If the government does not intend to set higher standards for making the minimum wage a living wage, then they need to maintain the integrity of programs like SNAP.

Idealistic at best, the proposed changes to the SNAP program are not practical. The administration has overlooked the true implications the new food stamp system will have on impoverished homes and families, and the justification for the changes is grounded in a privileged perspective; Trump and the administration are understandably incapable of grasping the realities of poverty, given their salaries and job security. This is nonetheless an invalid excuse for ignoring the needs and the dignity of the American people.