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A box of donated, shelf stable foods like ramen, canned chicken, cookies, rice, and peanut butter, similar to what the harvest box might contain.
A box of donated food. Photo by Salvation Army USA West, via Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Heads exploded last week when the White House released a 2019 budget proposal that aims to cut the cost of food aid by providing the “America’s Harvest Box” instead.

Budget director Mick Mulvaney compared the harvest box concept to food delivery services like Blue Apron, except these would come without the detailed cooking instructions and fresh foods that people could use to create delicious meals. Instead, America’s Harvest Box would contain basic foods like pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, shelf stable boxes of milk, peanut butter, and beans, all produced in the United States. This conservative cornucopia would replace half of the SNAP benefits supplied to the 16.4 million households who now receive at least $90 per month through the system. The great majority of recipients are the working poor, children, elders, and the disabled.

A bit of historical context might be useful here. The food stamp program has its origins in the Great Depression. Huge agricultural surpluses meant lower commodity prices for farmers, who then had to produce even more to stay afloat, contributing to the problem in a feedback loop. The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration tried to stabilize prices and ensure profits for distressed farmers by paying them to destroy the surplus. Crops were plowed under, milk poured into ditches, and livestock slaughtered. Seeing such waste in the midst of such poverty sparked outrage among America’s hungry and unemployed, so FDR tried a new tactic. The government purchased surplus food and distributed it directly to the poor. Losing potential customers caused grocers and food wholesalers to protest, so in another attempt to please everybody, the food stamp system was introduced as the best free market option.

That’s why food assistance is tied to the Farm Bill.  It’s not just a safety net for the hungry, it’s also a price support for farmers and a jobs program for retailers and distributors.

Soon, World War II came along and soaked up both surpluses – food and labor – so the food stamp program was temporarily retired. In the 1960s, though, President Kennedy brought it back as a pilot program to combat hunger in the world’s richest nation, and Johnson continued the program. In the 1980s, some surplus foods, such as cheese, were purchased by the government to stabilize market prices and distributed directly to hungry families, with another cheese glut in 2016, but in general, the free market solution provided more choice to families who could decide what foods were best for them, for supermarkets who reaped a not insignificant profit from food stamp sales, and for small-government conservatives (at least, the ones who considered widespread hunger a problem, not a feature of our economic system).

Trump Administration Proposes Providing Boxes of Food to SNAP Recipients, posted by Wochit Politics.

So, why is America’s Harvest Box so politically polarizing?

First, it reeks of paternalism. Conservatives who claim to value freedom, market-based solutions, and the ability of everyday Americans to decide how to live instead of having the government make those choices for them, are happy to exercise their version of morality by deciding what poor people get to eat. If low-income families find it necessary to maximize calories per dollar by buying highly subsidized, starchy food with little nutritional value, people who may never have known hunger demean them for unhealthy food choices and obesity. If the same family spends their SNAP budget on healthy food, like fresh fruits and vegetables, they’re told that they shouldn’t get to eat better than people who aren’t depending on handouts. Foods like potatoes, pickles, spices, pasta sauce, dried beans, rice, canned vegetables, eggsfish, and meat have been, at times, declared to be too good for aid recipients to eat.

Second, it appears to be a giant giveaway to any corporate food giant that can successfully lobby the USDA to include their product in the harvest box. Remember the brouhaha over the food aid delivered to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria? People who lost everything were given boxes of junk food, like Cheese-Its, Baby Ruth candy bars, and Airheads candy to see them through the emergency. Conservatives defended the efficient distribution of calorie-dense comfort foods that were better than nothing, but one could almost smell the corporate influence. How big of a win will the harvest box be for giant industrial-ag conglomerates, advantaging them over smaller, local, or more responsible producers?

Third, we’ve already had a food distribution system like this on the Native American reservations, and we can see how it turned out. Fresh food is included in some of the packages, and where it is, that’s one of the most popular parts of the program.  However, not all distributions contain fresh foods.  Insufficient access to fresh, healthy food is a problem on reservations across the United States, and Native Americans suffer high rates of nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes.

Ironically, while some Native and other poor folks can and do supplement their diets with nutritious hunted and foraged foods, The Onion’s recent harvest box parody piece highlighted the ridiculousness of the situation with a grain of truth, the way only they can.

There are other concerns, such as allergies (can families of peanut-allergic kids opt out of receiving peanut butter in their harvest box, especially if they can’t afford to keep a supply of Epi-Pens on hand?), social stigma, culturally appropriate foods, cooking ability, access to kitchen facilities, the effect on local economies, and who would pay for the distribution, but in the end, it comes down to one thing. As the economy bifurcates into a small class of Haves and a larger class of Have-Nots who are left behind, the Haves sure seem to require moral, economic, and physical suffering from the lower classes. There’s always something more going on than meets the eye, and it’s never been about equality.

Related: Hunting and Gathering Poverty Food

Sources:

Trump wants to cut back on food stamps for the poor and substitute with packaged food deliveries
President Trump’s Hunger Games
Trump Wants Big Government to Decide What Poor People Get to Eat
The right’s food stamp embarrassment: A history lesson for the haters
History, Background, and Goals of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Food baskets come with a Gilded Age moral lesson
Puerto Rico food aid from Ga. contractor sparks outrage
Nutrition and Health on Native American Reservations
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations [PDF]
Study of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) [PDF]
USDA Will Buy $20 Million of Cheese to Reduce Surplus
49 Million Americans Live With This — So Why Are We So Uncomfortable Talking About It?
Keeping the Poor Unhealthy: What They Can and Cannot Buy on Government Assistance
When meat is too good to eat on food stamps
[Parody] Trump Announces Plan To Replace Food Stamps With New Low-Income Foraging Program
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