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Editorial: Dehumanizing the poor through “America’s Harvest”

This month, the Trump administration proposed a radical change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The adjustments are concerning at first glance, and worse after deeper inspection. In short, SNAP benefits would be roughly halved, and food boxes nicknamed “America’s Harvest Box” would be delivered to SNAP recipients each month with prepackaged, non-perishable food items. The proposed changes would affect households qualifying for $90 or more in SNAP funds, which make up around 81 percent of those receiving benefits from the program.

SNAP is often the target of heavy political debate, and much of the animosity stems from misunderstandings and urban legends about how the program works. Craig Gundersen, a professor at the University of Illinois, spent 20 years researching the ins and outs of the program. In an article for the Washington Post in 2017, Gundersen stated some of the facts around SNAP. Recipients aren’t unemployed, lazy people, as many opponents claim — in fact, more than half of recipients are children. Able-bodied adults without dependents in their household only receive year-round SNAP benefits if they’re working a minimum of 20 hours a week. Other recipients may not work “enough” by some standards, because of disability or lack of employment opportunities.

Rumors that people sell their food stamps are outdated; the previous technology of actual stamps were sold, historically. But today, funds are dispersed on individual electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. “But with EBT, you can’t just sell the card – you’d also have to give the buyer your PIN number,” Gundersen reported. Fraud within SNAP is exceedingly rare, and individual states run constant checks to ensure money is being dispersed and spent responsibly.

Taking money out of the hands of SNAP recipients robs them of their autonomy and sets up a potentially life-threatening relationship that serves nobody in the long run. The new projection for SNAP is reminiscent of government rations and outdated welfare programs. The plan doesn’t have contingency measures for those with dietary restrictions or allergies, such as those who cannot eat certain meats under their religion, or have nut allergies.

Even simpler than religious choices or medical conditions, the “America’s Harvest Box” removes agency from SNAP recipients to make their own decisions on what to eat. Poor people in America already face incredible challenges to keeping up with the majority, in regards to making their own choices without judgment. Having the government decide roughly half of their food each month is demeaning. The idea that they should be grateful for receiving government help in the first place doesn’t excuse the shame that would come from this setup. Wanting to choose what’s on your dinner plate is not a sign of ingratitude.

Arguments that the boxes would promote a nutritious diet are on shaky ground. “America’s Harvest” has given brief descriptions on the foods it would include in their deliveries: shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter and canned meats. Many of these foods aren’t viable options for many Americans, due to lactose intolerance, nut allergies, soy allergies and vegetarian, vegan or halal diets. These boxes would include no fresh produce, to account for stability during transportation.

Furthermore, it’s unclear how these boxes will be packaged, transported and delivered to SNAP recipients. Somebody has to do this leg work. The administration’s proposal reports that states would have “flexibility” in how they choose to distribute boxes. This begs the question of whether the delivery costs would negate the alleged savings of these program adjustments. “Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings,” Jennifer Hatcher from Food Marketing Institute said. The proposed savings would also cut into sales and productivity of local stores and markets, as SNAP recipients would no longer be able to do as much business locally.

Over 16 million households in America don’t need their hands held in picking their dinners. SNAP could do with some changes — more funding and less stigma, for starters. Slashing the program in half and doling out boxes of standardized nutrition is far from a solution. Ultimately, we have to ask who these changes are really serving, because it’s surely not those who we’re claiming to help in their time of need.

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