FOOD SERIES: ‘Harvest Boxes’ and SNAP

Growing up in a financially stable middle class family meant that I never really had to worry about having food on the table each day. While we rarely sat down at the dinner table all together, there was always a great dinner each night and my sister and I rarely lacked packed lunches or lunch money. The few times we did usually happened because we forgot the packed lunch or money at home.

I say all this because it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized just how difficult it can be to provide food for yourself and your family if you’re struggling to make ends meet. A big part of this came through interning at a food pantry one summer and learning first hand how difficult it can be to get enough food if you’re at or below the poverty line. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) doesn’t always help and despite the fact that millions of pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables are regularly thrown out by grocery stores, getting anything that isn’t canned from food pantries can be really tough.

The current administration recently released their new budget deal and within the many pages was a plan to significantly cut down SNAP and mostly replace it with a delivered box of food. At face value and for folks who might not have to rely on SNAP, this could seem okay; after all, companies like Blue Apron seem to be thriving and in the age of Amazon, having things delivered right to your door is very convenient. But if you take a closer look, this plan has its flaws and there are many people who have been tearing this plan apart.

Part of why this plan doesn’t work is that it assumes that everyone can eat the exact same thing and alienates anyone with picky kids or those with food allergies or medical issues. The food that could be in the boxes would apparently come from an already selected list of food. Plus, a prepacked box of canned food also takes away the little choice that many SNAP beneficiaries have, as SNAP is already limited to certain things. Plus, the box doesn’t include any fresh fruits or vegetables.

There are also a lot of logistical issues as well. What if you’re homeless and on SNAP? Or work long hours and someone steals the box from your front door? What if you move a lot? And apparently, the projected savings doesn’t even include the cost for shipping these boxes to all recipients and it doesn’t look like the federal government would be even paying for this. Who would pay for that? If it’s not delivered, do people have to go somewhere to pick it up? That can be hectic and overwhelming if you don’t already have reliable transportation or work schedule. And from what I understand, much of the logistical aspects of this new program would fall onto states.

Having a delivery system for groceries isn’t an inherently bad idea and there are many folks on and off SNAP who’d benefit from something like this. Marissa Higgins wrote a piece for The Establishment last year about having a delivery system for SNAP, as there are many people who struggle to get to an actual store for groceries. However, these new ‘harvest boxes’ aren’t a great alternative because while they address one problem, there are many others that pop up.

The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

There are many folks who have been comparing 45’s new plan with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations because this program, at least to my understanding, does essentially what 45 wants to do with SNAP. If you don’t know (and I didn’t until recently), it’s an alternative to SNAP benefits for eligible folks living on native reservations. The USDA buys and ships food that’s selected from an arranged list.

In the context of understanding what might happen with the current administration’s plan for SNAP, looking at the FDPIR is vital. (And regardless of the larger picture, looking at indigenous food insecurity and poverty is vital.) On Twitter, @CanteZuyaWin recently tweeted about this and asked folks to share their own experiences. I definitely recommend reading through that thread. There are significantly more qualified people talking about this issue online. Here are what some people are saying (and I encourage you to click on the tweets to read through the associated threads!):

I think, and I could be wrong about this, that some of the big issues with this new plan are that it doesn’t meet people where they’re at, it takes away any sort of choice that people have in what they eat, and it relies heavily on canned and processed food. In an attempt to fix a program with very little fraud, this alternative could have some negative consequences to folks already struggling to get by.

And while these boxes are being promoted as having food from the US, I can’t help but wonder how healthy they’ll actually be. From what I can tell, the boxes from FDPIR are far from healthy and encompassing of a full diet and with decades of that program, I can’t help but think that clearly this type of program isn’t working.

I’m angry about all of this to be honest. I’m angry that we as a society keep shaming those in poverty and often actively work to keep those same folks in the same awful situations. This issue is complicated and messy and tied up in so many other issues. But the idea that these ‘harvest boxes’ is the great alternative seems more and more absurd the more I read from folks who have experienced food insecurity, SNAP, or other related issues and programs.

To be honest, I don’t have a solution to all of these problems nor am I really sure where to go from here. I do know that I’m planning to continue looking into this and try to find local, grassroots programs, organizations, and activists that are working towards helping folks with food insecurity. And I’m planning to also look into other aspects of food and hunger that accompany this issue. Stay tuned!