The Harvest Box is Dead. Long Live the Harvest Box!

 USDA's Harvest Box

USDA's Harvest Box

Like the zombie that just can’t be killed, USDA continues to hold onto the harvest box idea, despite the fact that neither the House nor the Senate Agriculture Committee intend to carry it forward in the farm bill. According to an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette, USDA officials are talking with the food waste e-commerce firm FoodMaven about piloting a harvest box type project in the private sector for future adoption by USDA.

Despite FoodMaven's good intentions, this idea is a nightmare of the anti-hunger community's own making, a logical extension of 40 years of food charity. If it's acceptable to hand out $5 billion of surplus food to poor people at food banks, many of whom are undoubtedly SNAP recipients, it should be equally acceptable to distribute few billion dollars more of excess food through SNAP. "Surely, we shouldn’t waste perfectly good food on surplus people through SNAP, even if all they seem to buy is kool aid, Kraft mac ‘n cheese, birthday cakes, and crab legs." Or so goes the racist and classist thought patterns of this crop of USDA leaders.

Food banks have established a model that the Trump administration wants to replicate to make federal nutrition programs as inexpensive, undignified, and unappealing as possible. As an added bonus, the Administration surely wouldn’t mind eliminating the incentives for the food industry to lobby for the SNAP program. It’s strategically brilliant mean-spirited Calvinism (is there any other kind?), with the twofer of dishing up red meat for Trump’s base. The Tyson CAFO chickens have indeed come home to roost. 

Will anyone in the anti-hunger community, much less Feeding America acknowledge that the harvest box idea is a product of their own making, of their own success the past 35 years in developing a dehumanizing but ruthlessly efficient system? 

So what’s the alternative to the harvest box? Circle the wagons and do no harm? We've been doing that, off and on, for the past 25 years or so. Is that really the best we can do as a movement? The anti-hunger establishment has virtually no vision for SNAP beyond maintaining the status quo and ultimately increasing benefits. It's always a matter of dollars, not of program structure, for these Beltway groups.  They ignore the potential for SNAP to be something other than what long time food security activist Hank Herrera calls, a “pass-through intermediary to subsidize the food manufacturers, [resulting in] poor people suffer[ing] and [dying] from the toxic foods the manufacturers provide.” They have lacked the creativity to envision how SNAP might be more effective at creating a more equitable, healthy, and ecologically sustainable society through redirecting its funding away from Walmart, Pepsi, and other such industry behemoths. 

Could in an alternate universe – or the next administration- the harvest box be done in a progressive way? Is there a way to remake the SNAP program so that it is not just a big-time subsidy for Big Food and Big Ag? Can that $60 billion of purchasing power be used to create alternative food systems that do better at reducing poverty, creating jobs, and paying taxes than the current system?

Here’s one idea, whose kinks admittedly are far from worked out.

Let’s offer SNAP recipients the opportunity to purchase a discounted CSA share through a centralized e-commerce platform. Local foods would go into it: fruit, veggies, nuts, eggs, and other healthy products. Individuals could opt into this program; noone would be forced to choose it. However, the price would be at a 50% or more discount, with Medicaid funds subsidizing the program, given its potential impact on reducing health care costs. This program would not be intended to cut the costs of SNAP, but instead would have longer-term beneficial impacts on the vitality of local economies and the health of participants. Starting modestly, this program could get up to one million boxes per year, about twice the amount of the number of households that receive CSA shares currently. 

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This effort would build off the successes of the FINI (Food Insecurity and Nutrition Incentives) and Fruit and Veggie Prescription programs, centralizing their coordination at the state level, while continuing to utilize community infrastructure for drop offs and outreach, such as schools, child care centers, food pantries, and community centers. Extension agents and state departments of agriculture would be responsible for gaining the participation of local farmers, and helping to build the farmer base needed to implement this program. SNAP-Ed funds would be used to support interactive and innovative nutrition education.

This program would be paired with programs to build the supply of local food through funding beginning farmers efforts, and forgiving college loans to young farmers willing to work in the public interest. Funds would be dedicated to rebuilding regional food system infrastructure, such as packinghouses, food hubs, and delivery through value added and local food promotion grants.

Surely there would be so many more details to be worked out. Maybe FoodMaven can utilize its cutting edge technology to help figure out how to make this idea a reality. 

It’s one small idea for how to transform SNAP to be a greater force for nutrition, job creation, ecological sustainability, and food democracy. It would take a redirection of public policy, joining up agriculture and nutrition programs in support of systems change.  As impractical and inchoate as it might seem, it is a starting point for dialogue about how to better utilize these $60 billion of purchasing power as a force for good.