On February 12, 2018, President Donald Trump announced a plan to replace a portion of families’ SNAP benefits (or food stamps) with a box full of nonperishable food items if they received over $90 per month in benefits. This plan, which the USDA dubbed “America’s Harvest Box,” would cover over 80 percent of SNAP recipients.
It would save an estimated $129 billion over the next 10 years, but is it a good idea from the perspective of someone who grew up relying on food assistance programs like SNAP? The short answer is no, but there’s more to it than that.
The Financial Benefits of America’s Harvest Box
I understand it from a business standpoint. Putting the same or similar food items in every box to 80 percent of the approximately 40 million SNAP recipients gives the USDA unbelievable buying power. The ability to buy in quantities of 33.6 million means that they can get amazing discounts from food manufacturers. This makes the items much cheaper than they’d be if you bought them in a grocery store.
So the idea makes sense in that it saves the government money.
The reality of this program is that nonperishable items like peanut butter, shelf-stable milk, and cereal generally aren’t that expensive to begin with.
The Downsides of America’s Harvest Box
This would be a great plan if the boxes included fresh meats, produce, and/or dairy products.
One good way to go about this would be a program similar to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), but fulfilled directly by the government rather than through grocery stores. Unfortunately, this is not logistically feasible for the government to tackle without a third party stepping in.
And nobody in their right mind would touch this volatile plan with a 10-foot pole.
You also have the fact that nonperishable items like canned meats and vegetables are generally loaded with sodium as a preservative and canning agent. That’s not to say that they’re not fine in moderation (they are); but eat those things monthly and compare them to the fresh produce and lean meat you could buy with the money they'd take away from SNAP recipients? It just doesn’t make sense.
How to Improve the Plan
Here’s a suggestion: Instead of taking away money and replacing it with these boxes, add them on as an additional benefit. Make America’s Harvest Box part of the SNAP program, but make it optional — and only for those who have children. The extra food would certainly come in handy. And the cost wouldn’t be overwhelming, especially if that family doesn't feel the need to spend as much of their SNAP benefits as they did before. Pair this with mandatory meal prep and shopping seminars, and you should see recipients’ monthly SNAP expenses drop. Plus, the food that they do buy will go farther and be healthier.