Feb 13, 2018, 7:07 PM ET

USDA proposes replacing food stamps with delivery service, added work requirements

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The Trump administration is proposing a drastic change to how millions of people in the U.S. receive food stamps by replacing cards with an equivalent cash value with a "Blue Apron-type" delivery box of food purchased by the government.

Unlike Blue Apron, which includes meat and produce, the food delivery box would include only shelf-stable foods like canned goods, rice and pasta, and other processed foods. The proposal also says that all of the products will be grown or sources in the U.S. and would represent a portion of that household's food stamps allotment.

USDA calls the food delivery program "America's Harvest Box."

PHOTO: Employee Shawn Lewis moves pallets of food at the Food Bank for New York City in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point on June 7, 2017 in New York.Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Employee Shawn Lewis moves pallets of food at the Food Bank for New York City in the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point on June 7, 2017 in New York.

In 2017 about 42.2 million people participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more casually known as food stamps. The government paid more than $68 billion to provide benefits of an average of $125.79 per month for each person.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed the food delivery box idea internally and Office and Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said in a briefing Monday that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue "wanted to give it a chance."

"USDA America’s Harvest Box is a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families – and all of it is home grown by American farmers and producers. It maintains the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive, provides states flexibility in administering the program, and is responsible to the taxpayers,” Perdue said in a statement.

The 2019 budget proposal says that the box program would cut SNAP costs in half by allowing the government to buy in bulk. Over the next 10 years it says the government would spend $129 billion less on the program, citing both the savings on retail costs and declining participation in the program.

Mulvaney likened the idea to a "Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash. It lowers the cost to us because we can buy prices at wholesale, whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure that they're getting nutritious food. So we're pretty excited about that. That's a tremendous cost savings."

A memo on the "Harvest Box" program says it will be up to states to figure out how to distribute the boxes through existing partnerships or "directly to residences through commercial and/or retail delivery sources." The budget proposal does not include any funding for distributing the boxes.

The president of Feeding America Matt Knott said food stamps are designed to be the first line of defense against hunger and that the infrastructure of food banks and other charities wouldn't be able to make up for the cuts.

Cuts to food snaps and other programs like it typically face a tough fight and could be removed by the agriculture committees, who typically take up any changes to the program in the Farm Bill that is reauthorized every five years. The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees released a joint statement Monday saying that the budget will not prevent them from doing their job of producing a Farm Bill that benefits farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders.

Other advocates said that the food box proposal was more of a distraction from other cuts and changes in the proposed budgets, like support for additional work requirements that could make it harder for some people to be eligible for benefits.

Current USDA requirements say that able-bodied adults without children can only get three months of food stamps in three years unless they work or participate in a job training program at least 20 hours a week. USDA would likely not change that requirement but could grant states waivers to impose stricter requirements at the state level. The USDA's budget proposal says that the agency plans for 1.4 million fewer people to receive benefits in 2019.

"Under the guise of being "helpful," the Harvest Food Box is a sham that takes away healthy food replacing it with fewer choices, said Monica Mills, executive director of Food Policy Action. "In addition, we must also fight against the other proposed eligibility and benefit cuts to SNAP that are just as radical and likely to gain traction in Congress. These budget proposals for SNAP are the wrong way to go to provide healthy, safe, affordable food for all."

Knott also said that the program is designed to help vulnerable populations like veterans returning from combat or seasonal workers who would lose benefits if they aren't working for several months.

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  • Nate Blank

    Sounds like a brilliant plan to me.

  • redhen1919

    SNAP eligibility rules require that participants be at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Level. Recent studies show that 44% of all SNAP participants are children (age 18 or younger), with almost two-thirds of SNAP children living in single-parent households. In total, 76% of SNAP benefits go towards households with children, 11.9% go to households with disabled persons, and 10% go to households with senior citizens.

  • Fred

    1 pork butt 10 lbs, a 20 lb bag of rice and 5lbs of canned fruit/veg per month. done total cost like $50/ month

  • Linda Harris

    Beggars can't be choosers

  • christina l

    The story says able bodied Americans can only get help for 3 months in three years if they are not working. that's approx $375. Not exactly "filled with fraud" if they get $32 a week for 12 weeks out of 156 weeks. It's just hate of the poor that drives this. we paid $122,000 for VA head and his wife to watch wimbledon, and that's 1 trip from one administator, and the homeless guy getting $32 is ripping America off. BS>

  • sjc_1

    The USDA will send bags of corn meal to people, then say good luck.

  • Carvagio

    This is a very bad idea. This proposal would penalize those people who are
    health aware and know how to choose and eat quality fresh foods often local,
    organic, from farmers markets, etc. Most people on food stamps are children and seniors - this create a greater equity gap between rich and poor. Many recipients also work at low wage jobs that do not cover all the food bills. And - what about families with special needs? Many autistic kids are gluten and/or lactose intolerant, and have GI issues. What of ethnic differences in food choices? What about vegans? Basically the Gov is telling people IT KNOWS BETTER than the people themselves, again - another way to exert control. Also, the gov want to dump all the USDA warehoused tax-subsidized Big Ag food surpluses of factory farmed products and GMOs on its lower income people. It will also add to healthcare costs.

  • Im_with_the_banned

    This is a great idea. SNAP is abused and rife with fraud and waste.

  • Holmes

    Donald needs to find ways to make up for the Corporate cuts.

  • Bill Toone

    Crooked Pentagon contractors bilking the government of billions = Good old boys, nothing to see here.

    Poor people on food stamps = you da mn parasites!

  • SJJ

    At 54 yo, I am on disability due to multiple chronic illnesses and will soon be in a wheel chair. I received my BS, paid off my college loans, worked for 35 years mostly for non-profit agencies and volunterred for multiple non-profits from the age of 10-50. My father worked for 50 years, served in the Army, and died before collecting his first SSI or retirement check. My grandfather worked for 50 years, served our country, and then died within 2 years after retirement. My brother, college educated, served in the Army for 26 years, now struggles to keep his house and help his 2 girls in college. My family and I have paid into the gov't system in many ways. Now I struggle to keep my grandparents small house, have several fatal illnesses, sever food and chemical allergies, high medical costs and currently receive food stamps. Receiving canned, high sodium processed foods will rapidly decrease my quality of life, and I now don't qualify for a kidney transplant. I prefer to go to the super market, use coupons or buy items on sale when available. By selecting highly nutritious all natural foods that I can cook healty meals at home my quality of life is better while I fight daily to remain independent & contribute to my local towns taxs. In VT, a friend and a Veteran, receives boxed long shelf life foods that are high calorie fatty foods which do not help his diabetes, high blood pressure and chronic illnesses. How would our president like it if some one else chose his meals? Not all of us eat at or would want to go to fast food establishments. My question to those gov't officials suggesting this plan, "Would you want to eat and live off these foods?" Maybe if those individuals gave up just a few of their "free benefits" (gym memberships, hair cuts, great free meals, cars, & the best health insurance plans), the government could help those in need and also balance the budget. May I suggest that those suggesting this plan try living on it first before implimenting it. Also, may I challenge these government officials to live like the large majority of the constituents that they serve, the 90% who struggled daily just to get by and servive. So Will you take on this challenge?

  • billlls

    I guess those 42 million could always say, no thanks, I'll figure out a way to provide for myself rather than live off the backs of others. Heaven forbid!

  • Lawrence Wilson

    What, you say you haven't received your food box yet this month? Well give me a call back in a couple of weeks if you still haven't received it. Oh, you say one of your neighbors told you they saw someone take the box off your front porch? Yes, well you know that isn't our responsibility, a, you need to call the police & fill out a report. Well if we made the delivery there's nothing we can do about it. My supervisor, well they'll just tell you the same thing I did....., OK just a moment & I'll transfer you..., click.... BZZZZZZ

  • Ron Argus

    "In reality, administration officials on Tuesday admitted that the food-box plan — which the president’s budget director Mick Mulvaney compared to the Blue Apron grocery delivery service — had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon.

    Instead, the idea, according to two administration officials who worked on the proposal, was a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party working on the latest version of the farm bill. The move, they said, was intended to lay down a marker that the administration is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs that will be achieved, in part, by imposing strict new work requirements on recipients.

    “I don’t think there’s really any support for their box plan. And, I worry that it’s a distraction from the budget’s proposal to cut SNAP by some 30 percent. That’s the real battle,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington think tank. “The dangers are these other proposals to cut benefits. But all anyone is talking about today are the boxes.”

    Senator Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the agriculture committee, doubted the motives behind the plan.

    “This isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction,” Ms. Stabenow said.

    Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stealthily pitched the idea over the last few weeks to the White House’s Domestic Policy Council as a novel way to reach the administration’s self-imposed goal of slashing federal food assistance programs by $214 billion over the next decade. It was quickly embraced by Mr. Mulvaney, a fiscal hawk who is seeking to steer a debate increasingly dominated by free-spending Republicans and Mr. Trump, who has insisted on major budget increases for the Pentagon and Homeland Security.

    Neither man had any illusions that the plan would be immediately embraced by congressional Republicans, who were not given advance notice of the proposal, the officials said.

    That the food-box approach has been tried only in small demonstration projects and never been seriously discussed during dozens of congressional hearings on the SNAP program in recent years did not stop administration officials from putting the force of Mr. Trump’s presidency behind it."