The recently proposed USDA America’s Harvest Box program, which would substitute a portion of the benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) with food purchased at wholesale prices, is projected to save $17 billion from the 2019 U.S. federal budget. Saving taxpayer money sounds good, but if you look beneath the surface, it’s clear that the program risks expanding the administration and operational costs of SNAP in a way that could cost taxpayers even more.So, is this idea simply opening a Pandora’s box of new issues?
The Reality of Logistics
The plan calls for replacing approximately one-half of benefits received by about 16.4 million households receiving $90 or more per month through electronic benefits transfer (EBT) debit cards with Harvest Boxes. Boxes will include “made in America” shelf-stable foods: milk, juice, grains, ready-to-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables, which the government will buy from CPG manufacturers.
The plan states: “The USDA would utilize a model similar to that currently used to distribute USDA foods to other nutritional programs.” Further details about how foods would be assembled, packed and distributed aren’t provided, although the typical model used by the USDA to distribute food relies on bulk delivery to a limited number of distribution points, such as schools, care centers, and food pantries.
Compare that with a potential of 16.4 million distribution points and the math falls apart.
Estimates for states to administer the program include a budget of $2.5 billion annually. The problem is that’s about $1 billion short of what they would need to deliver a large, flat-rate box at a commercial rate to qualified households. Given the inefficiency of door-to-door delivery, plus inevitable losses due to the rise of package theft, and distribution likely would fall again to alternatives like food banks and pantries.
If that wasn’t enough, states would bear the responsibility of assembling goods, packing them and operating the Harvest Box program. That’s in addition to continuing to administer EBT benefits. In other words, their loads would double.
The Challenge of Dietary Restrictions
“One size fits all” nutritional programs don’t take individual dietary needs into account, let alone preferences. In fact, dietary needs alone could quickly mount to half of the recipient households.
• About five percent of children and four percent of adults – 15 million Americans – suffer from food allergies. Children with food allergies tend to have more than one.
• One-quarter of Americans – much higher for minorities – are lactose intolerant.
• Twelve percent of adults and more than one-quarter of seniors in the United States have diabetes.
• Five percent of the adult population in the United States – 16 million Americans – are vegetarians or vegans – some for religious reasons, some for health reasons.
What would be the result of “one-size-fits-all” boxes including peanut butter, shelf-stable milk, canned meat and fruit juice? Wasted food at best, sick Americans – potentially experiencing life-threatening crises – at worst.
Although the USDA is open to taking specific dietary needs into account based on health or religious reasons, it would still be up to the states to decide what goes into the boxes. Presumably, the states also would have to figure out how to customize boxes. What about the diabetic who is allergic to peanuts and lactose intolerant? The complexity of assembling boxes with different dietary combinations is daunting and fraught with potential error.
Runs Counter to the Goals of the USDA SNAP Program
The stated goals of SNAP are “to improve participants’ food security and their access to a healthy diet.” The USDA site also indicates its priority is to expand access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods to SNAP participants. This goal runs counter to the proposed Harvest Box filled with canned goods and packaged foods.
Lessons from Uncle Sam’s Cheese Giveaway
Some of you might remember the government’s cheese giveaway program in the early 1980s. What began as a one-time program to reduce huge dairy surplus inventories by giving leftover cheese to people in poverty became an ongoing albatross for state governments, food banks, and local charities.
While the program seemed an easy solution to $2 billion in price supports for dairy farmers in 1981, it quickly became a burden of administrative costs.
With programs like these, the devil is in the details. It would be wise if we took note.