In a sweeping reform that is stunningly short on details, the White House is proposing major changes to the way that low-income Americans receive food benefits.
Currently, people participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) receive paper coupons or debit cards that they can use at a qualifying grocery store.
In the 2019 budget and in interviews with reporters, Trump officials say they want to cut those cash benefits in half and replace them with nonperishable food. The food would be ordered by the government and delivered directly to participating consumers.
The Trump administration describes the program in its 2019 budget as a “bold new approach to nutrition assistance” that combines existing SNAP benefits with “100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households,” but the budget does not explain how the food will be delivered or other key details.
Program details remain sparse
Trump officials told reporters on Monday that the reforms would affect approximately 16 million Americans who currently participate in SNAP, or 81 percent of households in the program.
"You actually receive the food instead of receiving the cash,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said in a press conference.
But Mulvaney did not explain how the program would work, other than that the USDA would advise states to deliver the food using “existing infrastructure.” The White House also did not explain how SNAP recipients with food allergies or other dietary issues would be affected.
“The projected savings do not include shipping door-to-door for all recipients,” USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh clarified in a statement to Politico, which reported that anti-hunger advocates found the proposal so outrageous they initially thought it was a joke.
“Holy mackerel," Kevin Concannon, who oversaw SNAP under the Obama administration, said of the proposal in an interview with Politico. “I don’t know where this came from, but I suspect that folks when they were drawing it up were also watching silent movies.”
Serving “nutritious” food
Mulvaney told reporters that the program would serve “nutritious” food and save the United States an estimated $129 billion over ten years. He compared the proposed delivery service, which the USDA is calling “America’s Harvest Box,” to "a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of [receiving] the cash."
But a government program delivering non-perishable foods at a discount bears little semblance to Blue Apron, a meal delivery service which says it only delivers farm-fresh, seasonal produce, meat with no hormones, and sustainably-sourced seafood, among other expensive and fresh foods.
Boxed or canned food is typically packed with sodium and sugar, two additives that the USDA and nutritionists have repeatedly said that Americans need to cut back on. The USDA’s press office has not responded to an inquiry from ConsumerAffairs.