Food box idea draws criticism from Democrats, advocates

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is pushing what it calls a “bold new approach to nutrition assistance”: replacing the traditional cash-on-a-card that food stamp recipients currently get with a pre-assembled box of canned foods and other shelf-stable goods dubbed “America’s Harvest Box.”

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney likened the box to meal kit delivery service Blue Apron, and said the plan could save nearly $130 billion over 10 years. But the idea, tucked into President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget, has caused a firestorm, prompting scathing criticism from Democrats and nutrition experts who say its primary purpose is to punish the poor.

“The main goal is to alleviate food insecurity, and the reason SNAP is so successful is because it gives low-income families the autonomy and dignity to make their own food choices,” said Craig Gundersen, a professor in agricultural strategy at the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gundersen said people will leave the program as a result of the shift.

SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — is the official name for the food stamp programs.

“All of a sudden you’re saying, ‘we don’t trust you to make the right decisions for your family.’ It’s demeaning and it’s patronizing. This is pro-hunger, because people will leave the program,” Gunderson said.

Under the proposed plan, households that receive more than $90 in SNAP benefits each month — roughly 81 percent of households in the program, or about 16.4 million — would be affected.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called the box “a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families.”

But the proposal doesn’t include any concrete details about how much the program would cost or how it would be implemented, saying only that states will be given flexibility to distribute the boxes “through existing infrastructure, partnership, and/or directly to residences through commercial and/or retail delivery services.”

Critics say sending boxes with the same foods to millions of SNAP recipients with no regard for tastes, medical conditions or cultural customs would be devastating to families with dietary restrictions. And while SNAP recipients are presently able to use their benefits to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry from grocery stores, the boxes would contain unhealthier, packaged alternatives.

Lawmakers say they aren’t even sure where the idea came from.