Making the Poor Sick for Profit
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.