It’s not every day that the crowd at a Washington, D.C. policy conference gets rowdy. But that was the scene on Tuesday (Feb. 26) at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference.
It happened when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) top nutrition official (and keynote speaker) Brandon Lipps touted Trump’s “America’s Harvest Box” scheme. Reporting on the event, Politico said the crowd erupted in boos and laughter. About 20 people walked out.
Good to know that at least some of the people focused on anti-hunger policies recognize “America’s Harvest Box” for what it is—just one more scheme to subsidize Big Ag and Big Food while undermining the health and well-being of some of America’s most vulnerable families.
Trump wants for $30 million to test the “America’s Harvest Box” program in a “small number” states. If he gets his way, about 16 million low-income families who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, would start getting only about half as much money to spend on food as the SNAP program has allotted them in the past. The other half of the money would be replaced by a government-issued box of “shelf-stable” food products such as peanut butter, canned goods (including meat), pasta, cereal, “shelf stable” milk and other products.
In other words, some of the least nutritious food available, most of it produced with pesticides.
Trump’s “Harvest Box” scheme has been met with widespread scorn, including from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), which told Politico the idea is “a Rube-Goldberg designed system” that would be “costly, inefficient, stigmatizing and prone to failure.”
But that doesn’t mean the plan is dead on arrival. "America's Harvest Box" has the full support of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who recently told the Los Angeles Times:
“It's not a sham. It's not a silly proposal. It's something that we'd like to see seriously considered and debated."
Given what we’ve seen come out of the Trump administration so far, we can’t count on saner heads to prevail. That’s why we’re asking people to tell Congress to oppose this bad idea.
Trump’s penchant for junk food—McDonald’s filet ‘o fish sandwiches, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Oreos, pizza, Diet Coke—have been widely reported.
Trump has the right to eat what he chooses (though it’s unfortunate that his food choices support an industrial agriculture system that pollutes the environment and contributes to a growing public health crisis).
But should Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) be allowed to force boxes of factory farm, GMO junk food on low-income families? We don’t think so.
Trump claims the “Harvest Box” food would be “preselected for nutritional value and economic benefit to American farmers.”
But the only farmers who would benefit under the Trump’s proposal are the already heavily subsidized growers of industrial GMO crops—the kind grown with massive amounts of chemicals, and used to make highly processed foods that dish up plenty of calories with minimal nutritional value.
The “Harvest Box” program would be administered by SNAP. SNAP is funded through the Farm Bill, which expires and is re-written every five years. The current farm bill, signed into law on Feb. 7, 2014, is up again for discussion this year.
‘Ridiculous and terrible’
We reached out to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) for his take on the “Harvest Box.” Blumenauer, who last year introduced the Food and Farm Act which calls for a massive overhaul of the Farm Bill, had this to say:
“This proposal is utterly ridiculous and the result of an inept administration out of touch with the needs of people across America. We need to do more to strengthen SNAP and increase access to healthier foods—in fact, I’m working to make that happen in the next Farm Bill. Trump’s plan is nothing more than a slap in the face of our most vulnerable.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) took a similarly dim view of the “Harvest Box” plan. She told us:
"The Harvest Box proposal is a ridiculous and terrible idea. Helping families address food insecurity means more than just sending them enough food to fill their bellies—it means opening access to nutritious, high-quality foods that can help keep them healthy. A box of shelf-stable items is not a replacement for benefits that can be used to buy a ripe tomato, wild blueberries, or any number of healthy foods out in the community. We should be looking for ways to help, incentivize, and encourage SNAP recipients to access these kinds of healthy foods, not sending them a box of highly-processed calories and calling it a day."
Indeed, Maine takes a different approach to administering the SNAP program—it’s called “Harvest Bucks.” Under the program, SNAP recipients receive discounts and bonuses when they purchase locally grown food. The result is better, more nutritious food for families, more business for local farms (which receive full price for their products), and more money going into the local economy.
As we wrote last week, SNAP benefits are already too low under the current Farm Bill, averaging less than $1.39 per person per meal. That drives SNAP recipients to fill up on cheap, high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, people with the highest consumption of federally subsidized foods had a 37-percent greater risk of being obese. They were also significantly more likely to have belly fat, abnormal cholesterol, high levels of blood sugar and inflammation.
Trump’s “Harvest Box” would make a bad situation worse.
A ‘logistical nightmare’
There are plenty of practical reasons Trump’s “Harvest Box” program makes no sense. The chief public policy officer for the Food Marketing Institute, which represents grocery retailers, told Politico:
"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.”
Matthew Gritter, assistant professor of political science at Angelo State University who’s authored books and articles about civil rights and social policy, wrote this about the “Harvest Box” proposal:
I believe that Trump’s harvest-box concept would be a logistical nightmare to carry out. In the rather unlikely event that the cuts he seeks do happen, it would become harder for low-income people to get healthy food.
That, in turn, would increase the already large burden on food banks and other nonprofits helping the many Americans who slip through the safety net in good times and bad to avoid hunger.
It’s time to let Congress to know that vulnerable children need wholesome, nutrient-dense fresh (and preferably organic) foods—not processed factory farm food products. Please take action. Tell your member of Congress that the USDA should support more local, organic and regenerative farmers—not factory farms and junk food producers.