Mak­ing the Poor Sick for Profit

Trillions - - Contents -

In the pan­theon of bad ideas com­ing from the White House, fund­ing a box of un­healthy food items for those in need of food sup­port may not be the dumb­est one, but it is cer­tainly close.

The new con­cept be­ing pro­posed by the ad­min­is­tra­tion is called Amer­ica’s Har­vest Box. It was un­veiled dur­ing a talk in Fe­bru­ary 2018 by Bran­don Lipps at the Na­tional Anti-hunger Pol­icy Con­fer­ence. Lipps is the rank­ing nu­tri­tion of­fi­cial at the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA). He was a key­note speaker at the con­fer­ence on Fe­bru­ary 26.

The idea is part of a pro­posed re­struc­tur­ing of the Sup­ple­men­tal Nu­tri­tion As­sis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP), for­merly known as Food Stamps. If the con­cept goes for­ward, it would cut food-buy­ing ben­e­fits by 50% for ap­prox­i­mately 16 mil­lion low-in­come fam­i­lies who qual­ify for SNAP. The other half would be used to pay for what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion calls Amer­ica’s Har­vest Box. de­spite the clever mar­ket­ing name, what Amer­ica’s Har­vest Box of­fers is a govern­ment-is­sued boxed col­lec­tion of what are re­ferred to as “shelf-sta­ble items.” Since this is still just a pro­posed pro­gram, the con­tents of the box are not yet fi­nal, but the in­tent is that they will in­clude things like canned goods (such as meat prod­ucts), pasta, ce­real, peanut but­ter and milk ca­pa­ble of be­ing stored with­out re­frig­er­a­tion prior to use. These are all highly pro­cessed foods, many of which are high in fat; sugar; and ar­ti­fi­cial in­gre­di­ents, fla­vor­ings, col­or­ings and preser­va­tives. They’re a sam­pling of some of the least-nu­tri­tious items one can get from a su­per­mar­ket. Many of them are laced with pes­ti­cides and/or in­clude toxic ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crop in­gre­di­ents.

For Don­ald Trump, who re­port­edly con­sumes fast food, cook­ies and soft drinks as a ma­jor part of his diet, the new govern­ment-is­sued food box may seem to be a bet­ter choice than what he is eat­ing. How­ever, swap­ping out fam­i­lies’ abil­ity to select bet­ter food choices is a bla­tant give­back to the fac­tory-farm and pro­cessed-foods in­dus­tries. It is also a sec­ond layer of give­backs to a gi­ant agribusi­ness in­dus­try that al­ready re­ceives sig­nif­i­cant sub­si­dies from the U.S. govern­ment.

In a re­cent in­ter­view on the mat­ter, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chel­lie Pin­gree (D-maine) said that “the Har­vest Box pro­posal is a ridicu­lous and ter­ri­ble idea. Help­ing

fam­i­lies ad­dress food in­se­cu­rity means more than just send­ing them enough food to fill their bel­lies — it means pro­vid­ing ac­cess to nu­tri­tious, high-qual­ity foods that can help keep them healthy. A box of shelf­stable items is not a re­place­ment for ben­e­fits that can be used to buy a ripe tomato, wild blue­ber­ries or any num­ber of healthy foods out in the com­mu­nity. We should be look­ing for ways to help, in­cen­tivize and en­cour­age SNAP re­cip­i­ents to ac­cess these kinds of healthy foods, not send them a box of highly pro­cessed calo­ries and call it a day.”

Pin­gree speaks for her own na­tive state of Maine, hav­ing proven that there are much bet­ter al­ter­na­tives to what Trump is rec­om­mend­ing. There, the state’s own Har­vest Bucks pro­gram adds value for those re­ceiv­ing SNAP ben­e­fits by giv­ing them dis­counts and pro­vid­ing other bonuses when they buy lo­cally grown food. It pro­vides three ben­e­fits: health­ier food for those most in need; sup­port for lo­cal farm­ers, who also get paid full price for their prod­ucts de­spite the dis­count given to SNAP users; and growth of the lo­cal econ­omy. All of these ben­e­fits are com­pletely miss­ing from the Amer­ica’s Har­vest Box so­lu­tion.

There are other con­cerns about the pro­posed pro­gram. By cre­at­ing the boxed food pack­ages, the so­lu­tion ac­tu­ally in­creases costs over what would hap­pen if the very same items were just pur­chased in a su­per­mar­ket in the first place. It would re­quire a sep­a­rate pur­chas­ing process and con­tracts with sup­pli­ers, re­ceiv­ing and pack­ing fa­cil­i­ties, fees for ship­ments to de­liver the boxes to dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters and even the cost of set­ting up dis­tri­bu­tion fa­cil­i­ties for the new boxes. That is a lot of added ex­pense that would likely re­duce the to­tal amount of food to be sup­plied com­pared to what SNAP would have made pos­si­ble on its own.

The White House is look­ing to run a $30 mil­lion test pro­gram for Amer­ica’s Har­vest Box. It would run in only a hand­ful of states, ac­cord­ing to what has been dis­closed so far. Un­for­tu­nately, likely all that would be tested is the pro­gram’s lo­gis­ti­cal side, rather than any eval­u­a­tion of how to make the boxes of food more nu­tri­tious and healthy than as cur­rently planned.

Left to hap­pen on its own, Amer­ica’s Har­vest Box will likely only har­vest govern­ment dol­lars and siphon them into the cof­fers of the coun­try’s agribusi­ness gi­ants. Those who don’t want this to hap­pen should con­tact the USDA and their con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives to block it be­fore it goes into ef­fect.

Photo: Peter Row­ley, CC

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