Under the Dome

Like Blue Apron, but with canned meat. Trump’s food box plan raises a lot of questions.

In this file photo, Ingrid Mock picks up items from the food pantry at Part of the Solution, a nonprofit organization, in New York, on Nov. 4, 2013.
In this file photo, Ingrid Mock picks up items from the food pantry at Part of the Solution, a nonprofit organization, in New York, on Nov. 4, 2013. The New York Times

The Trump administration wants a new way to get food to people on public benefits, but if that were to happen the boxes could be filled with items they can’t – or shouldn’t – eat, an NC State researcher said.

In his budget, President Donald Trump proposed sending food stamp recipients boxes of food in place of half of the money they receive each month to shop on their own. “America’s Harvest Box” would be sent to about 80 percent of people who use food stamps, and would include items such as shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, cereal, pasta, and canned meat, fruit and vegetables.

About 1.4 million people in North Carolina use food stamps, a federal program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Recipients must meet income guidelines.

The idea for government food by mail was included in Trump’s proposed budget. Congress is very unlikely to pass the proposal, and will write its own spending plan.

Trump proposes to cut more than $200 billion from the program – formally called SNAP for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – over the next 10 years. Much of that savings would come from switching to food delivery.

A North Carolina State University researcher concerned with food stamps and nutrition said the proposal leaves unanswered questions about the nutritional value of the food the government would send.

“I recognize the Administration was trying to think outside the box when they put the SNAP program in a box,” said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an assistant professor at NC State, “but the logistical and financial implications of this new model are ambiguous and questionable.”

The “Blue Apron-type program” would be a money-saver, said Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney, referring to the home food delivery service. The government can get the food at wholesale prices, he said, and “it also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food.”

Blue Apron sends fresh food and spices to home cooks at a cost of about $10 a meal. The average SNAP benefit works out to about $1.40 per meal, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, which focuses on federal low-income programs.

Haynes-Maslow, who has researched the cost of eating a healthy diet using SNAP benefits, said there was little information on how the government would ensure the nutritional value of the food.

“Some cereals have extremely high levels of sugar; canned foods also are susceptible to high sodium and sugar levels – unless they are explicitly produced using ‘low or no added’ sodium and sugar techniques,” she said in an email.

And some of the foods may be off-limits to recipients for health or religious reasons, she said. People with milk or peanut allergies won’t get much use out of the milk or peanut butter. “They might not even use the items in the box,” Haynes-Maslow said.

Food stamps are an economic benefit to farmers and to retailers. Some rural stores’ survival depends on SNAP benefits, Haynes-Maslow said.

Retailers panned the food box idea.

The Food Marketing Institute, which has grocery stores and pharmacies as members, challenged the idea that food boxes would save money.

“Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings,” the institute said on its blog. “As the private partners with the government ensuring efficient redemption of SNAP benefits, retailers are looking to the administration to reduce red tape and regulations, not increase them with proposals such as this one.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

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