July 23, 2019 | 71° F

WASSERMAN: Offsetting snap cuts with 'harvest boxes' will hurt public health

Opinions Column: A Healthy Dose of Justice


In all the tragedy that seems to occur in America these days, a keen eye for scanning the news and punditry can often find a story that seems just downright absurd, continuing to validate my idea that reality is now legitimately stranger than fiction. Under President Donald J. Trump, our misguided what-if’s that have fueled American entrepreneurial spirit are becoming a farcical substitute for policy making. With the growth of home food delivery programs like AmazonFresh, Blue Apron and HelloFresh in recent years, I understand the temptation of the availability heuristic that would guide our president to want to endorse this perceived innovation, but I want to dive into a few reasons as to why the Trump administration’s idea to cut back funding on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and replace it with a home delivery service is not a good idea for the health of Americans.

Under the fiscal year 2019 budget request released this month from the Trump administration, an attempt to cut $21 billion a year off the deficit over 10 years would be implemented by an approximate 30-percent reduction in funding to SNAP. To supplement the loss of funding, 80 percent of the 46 million Americans who are a part of the nutritional assistance program would receive, "shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables," but no fresh produce. The administration argues that this move is meant to “improve nutrition and target benefits to those who need them, while ensuring careful stewardship of taxpayers’ money.” To make matters even more absurd, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) spokesman Tim Murtaugh admitted that the budget does not even accommodate for all customers to receive the delivery function of the proposed delivery service.

In 2017, the federal government spent approximately $70 billion on SNAP, which amounted to less than 2 percent of the overall $4 trillion federal budget, and comprised an average of $126 per month for each beneficiary, who often receive very low incomes, are retired or have disabilities. With a family of three needing to earn less than $26,600 per year to qualify for SNAP, it is quite heartless in my opinion to believe that cutting their ability to purchase food of their choice would be a worthwhile endeavor. A 2014 study from Health Affairs showed that among low-income Californians, hospital admissions for low blood sugar spiked at the end of the month, with no comparable admissions for high-income people, indicating that a $126 monthly budget may not even be adequate to meet nutritional needs.

There is a certain irony that members of the Right, that do not want government to interfere in their lives, have now come out in advocacy for a plan through which the government decides what is best for the poor and the vulnerable. Stringent limitations on what can be purchased with the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards that operationalize SNAP already exist, meaning that people are already unable to purchase essential products like toilet paper, diapers, toothpaste and others on their limited monthly assistance. Trump’s proposed program pays no regard to any dietary restrictions or allergies that any SNAP recipient may have, and it pays no regard to whether they have accessibility to the appliances necessary to prepare the food being distributed. The limited list of items that would be included in Trump’s “harvest box” are a continued tradition of the U.S. government’s agricultural subsidies for so-called “junk foods” that are cheaper and longer lasting than produce products, despite the irony of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. public health institutions advocating for more well-balanced dietary consumption. Inadvertently, or maybe not so much, this program is bound to continue stigmatization of the poor for being unhealthy, while doing not really much of anything to expand their options and accessibility to healthy foods.

Rather than continue damaging the health of America through a Draconian war on the poor, the Trump administration ought to return to the populist rhetoric that brought it to power and advocate for a smarter food policy along the lines of “food sovereignty.” Through food sovereignty, policy is made that concerns the needs of people and involves them in the planning, production and distribution of food across agricultural systems. Although initially conceptualized as a bottom-up movement, the endorsement of a people-centered food system from the United States government could revolutionize public health. Putting market logic to reduce the deficit created by Trump’s tax cut before the needs of America’s most vulnerable is not feasible or smart, and America needs to find a new, healthier way to feed its people.

Jake Wasserman is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy senior majoring in public health with a minor in cognitive science. His column, “A Healthy Dose of Justice,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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Jacob Wasserman

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