Should the USDA reduce food stamp funds and supplement them with Harvest Boxes?

Last month the Trump administration announced a proposal for modifying the food-stamp program as part of next year’s budget. The plan would reduce the money recipients would receive and replace the loss of these funds with Harvest Boxes which were likened to meal kits like those provided by Blue Apron. Individual states would be responsible for the logistics of distributing the boxes to recipients. Like many proposals by past administrations, this one will probably not become law.

It is typical for the Executive branch to float trial balloons as part of the budget process to get a reaction. This administration seems to make proposals that distract the media from focusing on policy changes. For example, many articles have been published condemning the concept of Harvest Boxes, but little light has been given to the withdrawal of the Obama-era standards for organic livestock and poultry production. Republicans will continue to float plans to decrease funds allocated for food stamps while Democrats will continue to seek more funds for the program as they further restrict what can or cannot be purchased with them.

Criticisms of the proposal include the loss of consumer choice and the substitution of processed foods in place of fresh ones. One article suggests that boxes containing “peanut butter, canned goods, pastas, cereals and other staples” would lead to frightening health implications. They also point out those with peanut allergies could be exposed to a dangerous product. Another article calls the proposal demeaning to recipients as processed foods would be forced on people who want whole foods. Retailers are up in arms as less money would go to them and more to the processors of the items in the boxes.

My assessment of the plan is not as dire as most of the objections listed above. First, it certainly is no Blue Apron or Hello Fresh service. When subscribing to Hello Fresh boxes, I received enough chilled meats, fresh vegetables and processed ingredients sufficient to feed two adults three meals at a total cost of about $60.  I have been involved in two food distribution systems to help supplement the diets of families, most of whom were also on food stamps. In both programs the families had choices with respect to fresh fruits and vegetables, breads and desserts. Food boxes and/or bags with staples such as those described above were distributed once a month at my previous location. The number of boxes or bags provided to a family depended on family income and size. No choice on those items in the box or bag was given.

I currently serve as the ‘deli’ man at the local food pantry. Clients are permitted to come every other week. They do have choices among the items available among non-perishable products. They also have a selection of meat and deli products not available at my previous location. Choices may be limited, however, as I have a client who only wants organic products, another one who does not eat meat, and a third who is very careful about sugared items because she is diabetic. I do my best at helping them get what they want, but it is not always possible due to what is available to us at the time they come. I am personally opposed to cutting food stamp funds and distributing Harvest Boxes. I think that recipients should have more choices and be able to tailor their selections to meet the needs of their families. I do think that food shaming items like peanut butter, canned goods, pastas, cereals, shelf-stable milk and other staples as inferior products is not helpful.

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Canned veggies. Healthy or too much sodium?

A dialogue

Maria Omary, a food-science colleague I met years ago at Dixie IFT meetings, shared an article on Facebook on the implications of the proposed harvest boxes to partially replace food stamps. The article stimulated a dialogue by Messenger between the two of us that is presented below in the lightly edited format below: 

Me: I am planning a post on the Harvest Boxes too. I don’t think it is a serious proposal, but it does bring up some interesting points. Like so much with this administration, I think it is a distraction.

Maria: Good thing! I think it is worth looking at and educating people about it. It seems harmless to the inexperienced eye perhaps but you know the difference between canned and fresh produce.

Me: Yes, but canned is not horrible. It still is nutritious food and it is stable. Many people can’t afford fresh vegetables, and they don’t get to go to the store often. A problem with fresh is it doesn’t stay fresh that long. I volunteer at a food pantry every Monday night. We provide frozen meat, deli products, canned foods, breads, fresh fruits and vegetables and other items. They come to get their food every other week. Sometimes the fresh fruits and vegetables are in good shape, and other times not so good shape. I have many problems with the harvest boxes, but the idea that canned foods are not good enough for people is not one I share. The whole idea that something must be fresh to be good is one that leads to too much food waste.

Maria: They may be good because they process them at their peak, but it is what they add to them—sodium, etc. that concerns me the most.

Me: The sodium is a good point, but there are many other sources of sodium that are more serious than canned vegetables.

Maria: The additive effect is the problem especially if people on food stamps are also buying cheap food at fast food restaurants.

Me: The biggest contributor to sodium in the American diet is bread. That includes the buns on a fast-food sandwich—more than the fries. I am not sure if the content of sodium in canned veggies includes the brine or not.* Most people don’t consume the brine, so the salt effect may not be as much as would appear on the label, and they would be getting the fiber from the veggies.

Maria: Good point.

Maria and I have started a conversation. We invite you to join in with comments.

Next week: An economist weighs in on food aid programs.

*  Note added when I went to open one of the cans featured in the photo above. About 30-50% of the sodium in a can of vegetables is found in the liquid and is not consumed if the vegetables are drained. See below.

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Note the difference in sodium content between undrained and drained wax beans.

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