At the beginning of February, President Donald Trump proposed a budget that would make massive cuts to SNAP benefits and other programs designed to assist lower-income Americans.
The proposed budget would make $17.2 billion in cuts from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2019, and $213.5 billion over the next 10 years.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the proposed budget “deplorable,” saying that it would be “harmful” to families that depend on SNAP benefits.
“Let me be clear, no child should ever go to bed hungry, which is why I am deeply concerned about the administration’s proposed changes to SNAP, our main program to stave off hunger,” said Schumer. “This harmful proposal could mean that millions of families and seniors across New York and nationwide will lose access to desperately needed food assistance.”
As part of the budget proposal, the administration also proposed a “meal kit” style service that White House official compared to the “Blue Apron” subscription service – this would give lower-income families a box of foods chosen by the government instead of money to purchase food.
The idea for “America’s Harvest Box” was met with widespread criticism, particularly from those who said it could be disastrous for the health and nutrition of lower-income Americans, comparing it to the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.
In 1977, the USDA began distributing nonperishable foods like canned goods to Native American reservations. The food boxes sent to reservations included peanut butter, powdered eggs and milk, and canned meats and vegetables.
Public health for Native Americans living on reservations suffered under the food box program. American Indians are now two times as likely as white Americans to suffer from Type 2 diabetes, and have an obesity rate that’s one and half times higher.
“A lot of times we had mashed potato flakes — you add water, too — and maybe canned peaches, and if you had any vegetables, it was canned. And that was pretty much it,” said Valerie Blue Bird Jernigan of the Choctaw Nation.
“There’s even a name for it — it’s called ‘commod bod,’” she added. “That’s what we call it because it makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods.”
The nickname refers to the government commodities-based diet from the food boxes on reservations.
Elizabeth Hoover, who teaches classes on indigenous food movements at Brown University, said that the health risks were not because of American Indians being more susceptible to diabetes, but instead because of the low-nutrient, calorie-dense diets eaten by those receiving government food boxes.
In addition to health concerns, the “harvest box” proposal could have economic ramifications as well. Currently, grocers make up to $76 billion from SNAP recipients spending their food stamps in stores. Under a food box system, billions in economic activity could be lost.
Source: USDA / Flickr
There are also a host of other ethical and logistic concerns, like transporting the boxes, how to prevent boxes potentially getting lost during shipping or being stolen, and how the program would affect the meal gap and rates of food insecurity.
While it seems unlikely that “America’s Harvest Box” will ever become a reality, it’s emblematic of more serious proposals from the Trump administration regarding food assistance. In addition to funding cuts, the White House is also working toward implementing tighter work requirements on who can receive SNAP benefits in the first place.
The USDA has opened a campaign searching for ideas from the public on how to make SNAP recipients less dependent on benefits, with the USDA’s Agricultural Secretary, Sonny Perdue, saying, “Long-term dependency has never been part of the American dream.”
Currently, able-bodied adults who do not have dependents can only receive food assistance for three months if they’re working less than 80 hours per month and aren’t involved in educational or job-training activities.
States can request waivers for this requirement for the federal government during times when jobs are more difficult to find – but the White House under Trump has indicated that it wants to reduce states’ ability to obtain these waivers.
“Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency,” said Perdue.
About 70 percent of SNAP recipients are not expected to work because of disability or age, as many recipients are children or seniors, but many food stamp recipients are employed. According to statistics from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP benefits can actually help low-earning households stay employed. 82% of all households with at least one able-bodied adult that received SNAP benefits were employed within a year, and 58% were employed in the month that they received benefits.
On the contrary, instead of cuts to the SNAP program, one of the best ways to improve public health may be to increase the amount of money those who are enrolled in the SNAP program receive. Two professors, Patricia Anderson of Dartmouth and Kristen Butcher of Wellesley, found that if SNAP benefits were increased for recipients by $30 per month, they would eat more healthy proteins and fresh vegetables. The professors also found that an increase would reduce food insecurity and lead lower-income Americans to eat less unhealthy fast food.
So, what’s the best way to get involved and fight for food access?
Calling your representatives is a great way to start. You can find your representative online by entering your zip code here, or contact them by phone through the switchboard. The number to reach the switchboard for U.S. representatives is 202-225-3121, and the number for the switchboard for senators is 202-224-3121. An operator should be able to connect you to your representative’s office.
In addition to asking your representative to oppose food assistance cuts, you can also ask them to support more funding for the Women, Infants, and Children program, which offers supplemental food and nutritional counseling for pregnant women and young children.
You can also ask representatives and senators to advocate for more access to free or reduced price meals at schools. For example, New York City’s Education Department has started a program called Breakfast in the Classroom that offers free breakfast to students when they get to school.
You can also donate to food pantries and community kitchens in your area. Be sure that any food you donate is within its expiration date, since throwing out expired and unsafe food is a huge task that pantries have to expend valuable time and resources on. It’s also a good idea to include healthy and vegan or vegetarian options in your donations, along with personal care items like shampoo and toothpaste.
In the meantime, lawmakers are debating food assistance programs that many Americans depend on to survive.
“I urge the administration to immediately reverse course, and I vow to fight to build bipartisan support to reverse these cruel and counterproductive cuts to this vital anti-hunger program,” Schumer said of the proposed cuts to SNAP.
Lead Image Source: Gage Skidmore