Under the proposal, only a fraction of SNAP benefits delivered to households that currently receive $90 or more per month would be delivered through the traditional retail-based Electronic Benefit Transfer card that allows recipients to buy approved foods from grocery retailers. The remainder would be delivered in the form of a USDA Foods package, called a Harvest Box, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables and meat, poultry or fish.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, the amount of food in the Harvest Boxes would account for about half of their benefits – representing a drastic cut in the amount currently spent by recipients at participating retailers.
The switch would save a projected $129.2 billion over a ten-year period beginning in fiscal 2019, including about $2.5 billion annually in additional administrative funds for states, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The budget proposal also suggests that the change will reduce the potential for EBT fraud and improve the nutritional value of the benefit provided.
“USDA America’s Harvest Box is a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families,” USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue said in a release. He underscored that the change “maintains the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive … and is responsible to the taxpayers.”
To sweeten the sell, he also noted that all of the food in the boxes “is home grown by American farmers and producers.”
Retailers react with scorn
The change, which would impact approximately 16.4 million households, or about 81% of SNAP recipients, was not well received by industry stakeholders who see it as a threat to sales and as an ineffective approach that would undermine efforts to date to efficiently deliver benefits to SNAP recipients.
“The section in the President’s 2019 Budget entitled ‘Reforming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)’ certainly makes major changes, but not changes that SNAP-authorized food retailers see as positive or even efficient,” the Food Marketing Institute’s Chief Public Policy Officer Jennifer Hatcher said in a statement.
She explained, “FMI and our members have worked with the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and the USDA over several decades to achieve a national system, utilizing existing commercial infrastructure and technology to achieve the greatest efficiency, availability and lowest cost. As we understand the proposal in the President’s budget to create a USDA commodity foods box of staples, each of these achievements would be lost.”
She also suggested that the increased red tape and regulations created by the new program would negate any savings.
States will design delivery system
While this could be, the proposal provides scant details about how the program would actually be implemented – suggesting merely that “states will have substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships and commercial/retail delivery services.”
According to the USDA, potential models for the infrastructure could be the National School Lunch Program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.
However, neither the proposed budget nor USDA provide color on how the Harvest Boxes would take into account different dietary restrictions. For example, it is unclear if a diabetic would receive the same foods as a household with children.
The budget also would change who qualifies for SNAP benefits by expanding on previous proposals to “strengthen expectations for work among able-bodied adults” so as to preserve benefits for those most in need and support “the dignity of work.”