Sometimes cruelty comes in a can.
See the Trump administration’s 2019 budget, which proposes changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This money is currently delivered via Electronic Benefit Transfer card, which means recipients can go to the store, fill their carts with the food they need and like, then purchase it. Go grocery shopping, in other words. It’s both logical and efficient: The food is already where it needs to be; participants are responsible for transporting it to its final destination.
The new plan, however, would give households receiving $90 or more per month about half their benefits in the form of a USDA food package cynically named the “America’s Harvest Box,” filled with “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.” Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney compared it to the meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron — but it’s awfully hard to make harissa-glazed chicken drumsticks with potato wedges and zucchini when your box doesn’t contain chicken, potatoes, or zucchini.
You’ve probably read about this proposal, because it was met with swift outrage. Now here is what it would look like in practice:
Let’s say I have $90 in benefits. I spend the first half as I would under the current SNAP system, where funds are delivered to an EBT card. At my local Star Market, I drop $43.88, looking for sales and thinking about meal planning as I go.
I buy a whole chicken, roast it, and serve it with green beans and oven fries made from sweet potatoes and russets. The leftover chicken gets tossed with penne, broccoli, and garlic butter. The carcass goes into a soup pot for a long simmer with onion, garlic, carrots, and celery; I add rice, eggs, and lemon juice to make avgolemono. Pinto beans cooked with bacon pair with cornbread and sauteed Swiss chard. The leftover cornbread can be toasted to eat with bacon and eggs for breakfast. The leftover beans go over rice; the leftover rice gets fried with leftover bits of vegetables, meat, and eggs. A 2½-pound container of pre-cut cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, and watermelon keeps us in fresh fruit for a few days.
Now it’s time to spend the second half, on the kind of food I’d receive in an America’s Harvest Box. I spend $41 on canned, boxed, shelf-stable ingredients.
I make pasta with jarred sauce, along with canned green beans and corn. We have cereal with shelf-stable milk. Canned pinto beans still go over rice, but I don’t have bacon, onions, garlic, carrots, and celery to cook them with. There is peanut butter but no bread. I love canned sardines, but no one else in my family does; on the other hand, my son is delighted with the sugary fruit cocktail and mandarin oranges.
In terms of satisfaction and nutrition, there is no contest. This may be food, but it is extremely difficult to turn into meals.
It is also depressing as hell. I can’t control my family’s nutritional intake. The things we don’t like go to waste. I can’t cook what I want, and trying to make something that will suffice feels like an exercise in hopelessness. (This comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever been on government assistance. I am not a SNAP recipient. I’ve been fortunate in my circumstances. And as for most people in this country, that could change with one or two strokes of bad luck.)
The outrage is warranted. This proposal denies choice to users. It makes it impossible to accommodate for dietary or cultural needs, never mind taste preferences. It seems designed for waste, designed not to nourish people but to remind them they need assistance, to tell them they ought to be grateful for what they get. Transporting heavy packages of canned goods — the systems for which would be designed by the states — is inefficient and expensive.
“The sheer logistics of it would be a mess,” says Ashley Stanley, founder and executive director of Lovin’ Spoonfuls. Although the nonprofit rescues and distributes perishable, rather than shelf-stable, food, the basic concepts are the same: “My entire business depends on clean, consistent, reliable logistics that guarantee food makes it into the hands of people that need it,” she says. “Are we talking about shipping cans of heavy food? And then what — we leave it at people’s doors? It’s imbecilic. When you’re talking about distribution, it’s a multi-tentacled endeavor. There’s no chain of command, no accountability.”
Then there’s this. The plan isn’t even designed to pass. It’s designed to send a message: that the 42 million people who participate in SNAP ought to be ashamed of themselves, even though more than two-thirds of recipients are children, seniors, or people with disabilities, even though there is a work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents.
“It is designed politically to play to the base of the administration,” says Billy Shore, founder and executive chair of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in the United States. “Having worked with Democrat and Republican administrations, it is so unusual to have something like this come out of left field. All of us who lead national hunger organizations are used to working with the USDA and White House, vetting proposals in advance and giving input. This was not put together in any serious way. Nobody I know had any input in it.”
Insiders understand the proposal is not likely to go anywhere, Shore says, but those who rely on assistance may not: “It is cruel to play politics with people whose lives have challenges and depend on this and now have to worry.”
Let’s teach people how to shop. Let’s teach people how to cook. Let’s not take away people’s agency. Let’s not even pretend it’s a good idea to send a family a box of low self-esteem each month. The goal of SNAP is to feed people, not to shame them.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.