Opinion: White House proposal to change SNAP won’t fly

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In early February, the White House proposed sweeping changes to the farm bill’s Supplemental Nurtrition Assistance Program.

Under the plan unveiled by White House Budget director Mick Mulvaney, SNAP would look very little like it does currently.

Mulvany and his merry band of budget bean counters want the government to get into the food service delivery business by reallocating about 50 percent of SNAP dollars (that’s taking the money away from SNAP recipients) to create something called America’s Harvest Box – a one-size fits all monthly care package of 100 percent U.S. grown and produced non-perishable foods like cereal, meats, milk, canned fruits and veggies and peanut butter.

Mulvaney put the scheme together without so much as picking up a phone or shooting a text message to leaders of the nation’s food banks who presumably know a whole lot more about food delivery than the White House.

Had Mulvaney made the call he would had learned his wholesale revamp of SNAP isn’t such a hot idea.

To wit:

The infrastructure is simply not there to deliver monthly food packages to some 16 million households.

Food bank folk will tell you they got their hands full with the Community Supplemental Food Program, which boxes up non-perishable food items for roughly 600,000 low-income senior citizens.

Delivery costs are provided by a combination of USDA and private donations.  In other words, the federal government is not paying full freight on this existing food donation program.

Which brings up a second point … those food boxes Mulvaney wants to send around the nation will be heavy.

Under the Community Supplemental Food Program, the USDA ships food items to food banks and for the most part invites eligible seniors to pick up packages at distribution centers.

A typical box of these food items for one senior weighs between 20 and 30 pounds.

Is the USDA ready to, on a monthly basis under an American Harvest Box program,  deliver to food banks some 840 MILLION pounds of food (42 million recepientsrecipients x 20 pounds)?

Presumably not every SNAP recipient will be able to collect their food at a government-approved distribution center.

For those who can’t, what happens?  I don’t know if Mulvaney has ever tried to ship something UPS or FedEx but let me enlighten him – the cost would be astronomical.

What more reasons the Mulvaney scheme is unworkable?

It’s doubtful food boxes would take into account individual food allergies or the best mix of items for families of different sizes.

But perhaps one of the biggest reasons this plan won’t fly goes to an expression I learned watching commodity markets years ago: “Don’t poke a bear and let sleeping dogs lie.”

Anytime you make a massive change in federal policy there will be winners and losers.  The loser here is the nation’s grocery stores.  Walmart and their grocery brethren will not go down without a fight. Back in 2013 a Walmart executive let slip the company took in about 18 percent of all SNAP dollars amounting to about $13 billion dollars.

The chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees – Representative Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Senator Pat Roberts (Kansas) –  issued a joint statement suggesting Mulvaney build-a-box idea will be ignored by Congress.

For his part, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue says he called on the USDA staff to think outside the box and come up with SNAP improvements – outside the box to come up with a box, I guess.

Purdue says it’s “a real thing” and he’s asked the House Agriculture Committee for $30 million for a pilot program to determine if America’s Harvest Box will work.

Conaway is reportedly considering it.

I don’t know if the Senate Agriculture Committee will agree with this goofiness, but they shouldn’t.

Mulvaney’s laughable box of food stuffs is a bad idea.


About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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