Condescension in a box: The Trump administration’s SNAP proposal


February 27, 2018

Earlier this month, as part of its overall budget plan, the Trump administration proposed a radical restructuring of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  The changes would involve $213 billion in cuts over a decade, and one fundamental change would mean that just over 80 percent of all SNAP recipients – those receiving at least $90 in benefits a month – would get about half of their benefits in the form of a “USDA Foods package.”  The package would consist in part of “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.”
The proposal has SNAP recipients worried and nutrition experts and anti-hunger advocates shaking their heads in bewilderment.

One recipient who shared her concern with Voices for Human Needs is 64-year-old Barbara Baimel of Orange County, New York.  She and her husband receive a combined $256 a month in SNAP benefits; she suffers from scoliosis and is also on SSI.

Barbara worries both about cuts to the program and about what exactly USDA plans to put in the box.

“If they cut that in half, I’m looking at a nightmare,” Barbara says of her monthly benefit.  “I will have very little food, and the thought of that is scary.  I don’t have very much as it is….Why penalize the people who are just trying to eat? It drives me nuts.”

And she looks at the contents of what USDA would offer and says her current diet is a lot better for her.  “I try very hard to eat healthy,” she says.  “I don’t think I would be eating too healthy if I ate the contents of that box.  It’s full of salt.  No fresh vegetables, no fresh meat, no fresh anything.  And as far as nutrition, no.  There’s no nutrition in that box.”

As for policy experts in the anti-hunger community, they are simply perplexed at the proposal.

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, told NPR that the administration’s plan left him baffled.  “They have managed to propose nearly the impossible, taking over $200 billion worth of food from low-income Americans while increasing bureaucracy and reducing choices,” he said.

On Tuesday, Brandon Lipps, acting deputy undersecretary at USDA charged with administering SNAP, spoke to the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference co-sponsored by Feeding America and Food Research & Action Center.  He justified the switch to food boxes by saying that even after adding up the bureaucratic and transportation costs, providing food in this way would save tens of billions of dollars.  Attendees, who included people who run food banks around the country, laughed and booed when he suggested that there would be savings even if they mounted an effort to deliver food to the homes of recipients.  If there are savings, Barbara is convinced they will come at the expense of individuals’ specific nutrition needs.

Barbara notes that one problem with the box idea is the one-size-fits-all notion that everyone eats the same things.  For example, she concedes that peanut butter, which would be included in the box, has its nutritious qualities, but she has trouble digesting it.  Some people consume milk.  Some don’t.  Some eat this, some eat that.  In the retirement community where she lives, many people receive SNAP benefits; the box, she says, would be a “catastrophe.”

There also seems to be a paternalistic, even condescending aspect to the Trump administration’s proposal, which is basically telling people what they should and should not eat.

Douglas Greenaway, president of the National WIC Association, told NPR that “Removing choice from SNAP flies in the face of encouraging personal responsibility,” he said.  He says “the budget (proposal) seems to assume that participating in SNAP is a character flaw.”

Barbara wholeheartedly agrees, and it makes her angry.

“I am very disturbed that they seem to think that everybody on food stamps is some kind of (unintelligent) creature,” she said.  “I really think they are under a real misconception about who the people are who are on food stamps.  I think they think we are totally illiterate and can’t decide what we should eat.”

For more info on this and the other proposed negative changes to SNAP in the Trump administration’s budget, please see our latest Human Needs Report.

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