Within President Trump’s FY 2019 proposed budget is a strange and unexpected initiative that would replace food stamps with prepackaged food boxes. The “America’s Harvest Box” proposal would affect over 16 million SNAP households by replacing a portion of their EBT benefits with a “package of nutritious, 100-percent U.S. grown and produced food.”1
The food boxes would contain “staple, shelf-stable foods (such as shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables) at approximately half the retail cost.” While Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue lauded the proposal as “a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families,” many anti-hunger and farming organizations view the program as inefficient, ineffective and a lost opportunity to support agricultural communities and farm families.
The budget has little chance of passage, and the broad opposition to this provision means its chances are even slimmer. While the administration hails it as innovation on par with mail order meals like Blue Apron, America’s Harvest Box is actually a giant step backward to the days of “government cheese.” The America’s Harvest Box proposal reveals an underlying dynamic of the farm bill: nutrition programs have not always prioritized the nutritional needs of recipients.
Nutrition programs did originate from a clear need to address the poor health and malnutrition of WWI military recruits. However, nutrition programs also came from the need for large-scale industries to deal with overproduction and surplus supplies.
The easiest way for the federal government to deal with overproduction was to buy up surplus non-perishable food commodities because they could be stored long-term and cheaply transported. Then, they could be strategically released into the marketplace to avoid a decline in prices. Through nutrition programs, consumer demand for non-perishable commodity products could be adjusted to help control the market.. Products could either be distributed directly to people who would otherwise not be able to purchase them or indirectly through a program like SNAP which increases consumers’ purchasing power to buy non-perishable commodities at retail stores.
Perishable commodities, like fruits and vegetables, cannot be used as a marketplace adjustment in the same way as non-perishable commodities. While fresh fruits and vegetables are an essential component of a healthy diet—and SNAP helps low-income households purchase fresh fruits and vegetables—America’s Harvest Box reinforces the priority of non-perishable commodities over perishable foods.
Many members of the food security and agricultural communities have emphasized the problems with America’s Harvest Box. The Food Research and Action Center, a leading anti-hunger nonprofit, called the food box proposal “costly, inefficient, stigmatizing, and prone to failure.”2 The Greensboro Curb Farmers Market, which accepts SNAP/EBT, says the proposal would “negatively affect their market, local farmers, and community who are eager for affordable fresh foods.” Other opponents cite serious issues including food box contents may be culturally inappropriate, could violate food allergies or other critical health issues, and do not represent a healthy diet.
Vern Switzer, a farmer from Rural Hall, NC, says that while “it may be easier for someone to open a can of green beans, it’s just not the same as being exposed to fresh beans. What a farmer grows can offset obesity and nutrition issues. And it would help the farmer to sell that food.” But, “if the government doesn’t change their tactics, there’s going to be no change.”
Every year, SNAP helps millions of low-income American households purchase food. It is the country’s best hunger safety net. Because of this, SNAP and other nutrition programs can and do serve as effective channels to encourage people to eat healthy, nutritious food. Instead of inefficient food boxes that prioritize marketplace control of non-perishable commodities over nutritional quality, the White House should focus on fully funding SNAP and other nutrition initiatives that enable and encourage low-income Americans to freely choose and purchase healthy, fresh food.
At RAFI, as we advocate for SNAP and the reconsideration of the Harvest Box proposal, we know this is part of a bigger picture: the 2018 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is our opportunity to bring reforms that increase the viability of family farms, while promoting economic growth, environmental sustainability and community health. RAFI will stand up and fight for a Farm Bill that makes sense for farmers and the communities they serve. Learn more about our Farm Bill platform.
- USDA America’s Harvest Box. Agri-Pulse. Feb. 2018. https://www.agri-pulse.com/ext/resources/pdfs/Americas-Harvest-Box.pdf.
- Bottemiller Evich, Hellen. Trump pitches plan to replace food stamps with food boxes. Politico. Feb. 12, 2018. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/02/12/food-stamps-trump-administration-343245.