Anti-hunger groups are aghast at the Trump administration’s proposal to distribute part of SNAP benefits in a “Harvest Box,” comprised of shelf stable items, such as pasta, cereal, canned foods, peanut butter, and boxed milk. Neither produce nor other perishables would be included. Food bankers are concerned that they would be enlisted in the logistical nightmare of distributing these boxes to 21 million households.
There’s plenty to hate about this proposal. It’s impractical, stigmatizing, mean-spirited, and flies in the face of nutrition advice that encourages greater consumption of produce, just for starters.
These criticisms- as well as the copious articles I have read in the past two days- ignore the fact that USDA already distributes such boxes to 90,000 Native Americans who qualify for SNAP but live in remote areas without access to grocery stores. The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) is a $150 million program, and has been generally moving in the right direction in recent years. The quality of the food has been improving to the extent that it is vastly better than what the average American eats, as measured by the Healthy Eating Index. USDA is required by statute to consult with tribal authorities about the program’s contents and operation. FDPIR has included more culturally appropriate foods, such as blue corn, bison, wild rice, and salmon in the food packages, although USDA still struggles to differentiate among the regional preferences of Indian nations. This sourcing of traditional foods has opened the door for USDA to purchase from Native agricultural enterprises, building wealth for Indian communities.
Let’s also not forget that USDA, through its procurement arm, USDA Foods, buys hundreds of millions of dollars of commodities for food banks. It also buys a billion or more dollars of commodities for schools to serve at school meals. It sets standards for which foods can be purchased in the WIC program, or what can be served at school lunch.
So, let’s be very clear. USDA is already in the business of deciding what poor people- and schoolchildren- eat every day.
Beyond its impractical aspects, the main problem with the Harvest Box proposal is that it singles out poor people and tries to make their lives more miserable and more demeaning through controlling what they eat. Ignoring the cultural, personal and culinary preferences and abilities of 40 million people, it would standardize not just school lunch but family dinner. It would nourish a lot of resentment.
Many critique the proposal for going too far in the government’s control over what poor people eat. I argue the converse: it’s not that this proposal goes too far, but that it doesn’t go far enough.
If the federal government wants to get deeper into food procurement, beyond the $2 billion it spends on commodities for school lunch, FDPIR and food banks, then let’s go whole hog. Let’s do it for the entire American population, not just SNAP recipients. Let’s really save American taxpayers a big chunk of change rather than mess around with $10 or $20 billion per year.
Here’s how to do it.
The Trump Administration should nationalize the grocery business. We might actually get some real savings out of doing so. We could shape people’s diets and cut back dramatically on diet-related diseases. They are an enormous drag on our society’s wealth. Diabetes, linked to poor diets, costs society $245 billion annually. Obesity, $190 billion. Heart disease, cancer hundreds of billions more.
If we are going to be a little Soviet, let’s double down and do it up.
The problem isn’t that the Harvest Box circumvents the free market, as Joel Berg of Hunger Free America (whose organization receives millions of dollars in grants from free market icons Pepsi and Walmart) states on NPR. Frankly, it’s that SNAP is an accomplice to our need for cheap food with the accompanying externalities caused to public health. It reinforces the ills of the marketplace rather than seeks to transform them. Bioethicist Nancy Kass of Johns Hopkins University asks whether our patterns of consumption represent a freedom of choice or a social injustice, and whether government action would be interfering with personal preferences or righting a wrong (Big Hunger p 137).
If Trump wants to save money, we could do so by centralizing decision-making for the public good. Consider what a nationalized grocery industry could do for American health:
· Food deserts would be eliminated. Grocery stores would be sited based on community need not on a profit motive.
· Harmful products, such as cigarettes and certain types of low-cost high-alcohol content drinks, would be less available as grocery stores no longer carry them.
· Community-produced, union-produced, regionally grown and organic foods would be more easily available and more affordable, subsidized given their economic benefits to communities.
· Conversely, foods that are harmful to the environment or to public health would either no longer be sold or priced in a way to discourage their consumption, with the premiums used to mitigate the damage that they cause. For example, soda would be sold at a price premium that discourages over consumption.
· The selection of food items would be made more rational. Economists have written about the detrimental effects of having too much choice. Do we really need 200 varieties of soup, or just 40 or 50?
· Food waste would be reduced by changing how stores purchase and store foods.
· The pricing structure of foods would be changed such that healthy foods are less expensive.
· Store layouts would be retooled to incentivize healthy foods, e.g. no more end caps with chips and point of sale displays of candy bars at children’s eye level.
· Each store would provide services, such as nutrition education, social service outreach, voter registration, health screenings, and more.
It's evident from this list that the grocery industry, in conjunction with the food processing industry, has done grave harm to public health. Food is much too important to be left to the chaos and inequities of the corporate-controlled "free" market.
Now, I don’t trust the Trump Administration to do anything for the public good, but one never knows what will happen with the continuing influence of his dear friend Vladimir on our elections.