There has been a lot of controversy about Trump’s proposal to modify SNAP, and rightly so. It ignores the growing mountain of research linking fresh food with nutrition and health, and in so doing it continues the myopic errors of top-down administration. If we acknowledge the pervasively integrated nature of the economy, it is clear that investing in our food system will yield much greater savings than the wholesale discounts proposed by America’s Harvest Box. But it is possible to employ the box program in a way that supports local farmers and economies. The answer is simple: think small.
Currently, SNAP works by way of a debit card – benefits are placed on an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card each month, which recipients can then use at stores and farmers markets to purchase qualifying items. The president wants to change this by converting about half of the funds distributed to each household to what is being called “America’s Harvest Box”, a direct delivery of food rather than cash. The initial description says the box will include items “such as shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables”, will be sourced in full from American products, and will largely be left to states to determine the best methods for delivery. The dominant reason for the shift, says the release, is that these boxes would save the government $129.2 billion over 10 years by allowing them to purchase items at wholesale prices, even after accounting for an increase in funds to cover states’ administrative costs. (However, it is unclear whether these figures include shipping and distribution costs, which would be substantial if the intent is to deliver right to recipients’ doors.)
If the federal government is left in control of the box’s contents then we can be pretty sure that only the largest national food manufacturers will be responsible for filling the orders. That’s bad for consumers because mass-produced, shelf-stable foods also contain unnecessary amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, all of which are known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, which means rising health care costs. And that’s bad for local economies because money that can now be spent locally at farmers markets and grocery stores would be stripped away and given directly to already elite players in the industry. This is exactly the wrong way to strengthen our economy.
There is a way to apply the idea in a way that would support our food system from the ground up, rather than top-down. First, tap local food hubs for sourcing and distribution. Local food hubs often serve as operation centers for communities. They provide sites for farmers markets, meaning direct contact with those growing the food, but many also offer pickup locations for pantry organizations, meaning direct contact with those most in need of food. Some even offer commercial kitchen space and advising for small business ventures, so they have potential space and labor to prepare meals. Using funds jointly contributed by local, state, and federal programs (like SNAP), these local food hubs can much more efficiently distribute ready-to-eat meals made from locally sourced food to residents of the same community. This guarantees that more of each dollar stays in circulation within local economies rather than being siphoned off by corporate interests.
Some areas don’t have an integrated food network on which to build a supply and distribution chain. For these communities, our priority should be on developing local food systems rather than shipping in packaged foods. Support local farms and farmers markets, establish food hubs and networks to connect producers and consumers, and above all, create education campaigns that explain the need for fresh food on the basis of both nutrition and economy.
We don’t have to turn to wholesale discounts to provide food for the needy; in fact, doing so will only create more needy. Think small by employing local systems where they are already in place, and supporting their emergence everywhere else.