This analysis was first available to Bloomberg Government subscribers.
Food assistance advocates are skeptical of the Agriculture Department’s claims it can cut costs by replacing food stamp benefits with food packages filled with shelf-stable items.
The America’s Harvest Box proposal, which would replace half of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits with food packages, would save money because USDA can buy food in large quantities, a USDA spokesperson told Bloomberg Government. The packages would include non-perishable foods such as cereals, peanut butter, and powdered milk.
The proposal was modeled on the operations of USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides monthly food packages to low-income persons at least 60 years of age. For FY 2017, Congress appropriated $236 million for CSFP.
“The estimate assumes FY 2019 implementation, and administrative costs at a similar scale to the existing CFSP,” said the USDA spokesperson. “Administrative costs for the transportation of the foods from the State warehouse to a recipient agency are also accounted for in our estimate.”
Nutrition organizations, like Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, said the USDA has not shown any costs for distribution — and worry non-profit organizations might have to pick up those costs.
“Replacing a big portion of a SNAP EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] system with a distribution plan is ill-conceived,” Matt Knott, president of Feeding America, told Bloomberg Government. “It is a logistical mystery and economic disaster in the making.”
President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal predicts the plan would save SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, $129 billion over a decade. The administration’s plan would apply to people who receive at least $90 a month in SNAP benefits.
Where’s the Proof?
Knott said one of the food banks in the Feeding America network, Vermont Foodbank has a USDA CFSP contract, but the amount of money given to the food bank doesn’t even cover half of the distribution costs.
The federal government provides $240,000 a year to Vermont Foodbank for the CFSP, but Knott said the cost of distribution is well over $600,000 a year—leaving Feeding America with almost 60 percent of the tab and it doesn’t even get the product to individual homes, which the Harvest Box proposal would try to do.
“You have to recognize that the Commodity Supplemental Food Program is a fraction of the size and trying to scale it to a SNAP model or a national model would break the bank,” said Knott. “This would eradicate any savings proposed by the administration and if the administration believes non-profits would pick up the tab they’re mistaken.”
Vermont Foodbank serves 2,400 seniors a month on CFSP and the distribution cost per box in Vermont is roughly $21.
Ronette Briefel, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research organization, told Bloomberg Government scaling up food packages to a national level would be a very difficult task. SNAP is forecasted to have about 42.2 million participants in fiscal 2018, while the commodity program is projected to have only about 730,000.
Briefel led the team that wrote an interim report on the USDA’s “Demonstration Projects to End Childhood Hunger” and evaluated a Chickasaw Nation tribal project, which, through a grant, provided food via home delivery to households with children who qualify for free school meals in Oklahoma. Each monthly food box contains shelf stable foods purchased for approximately $40 and a voucher for purchasing fruits and vegetables.
As the Chickasaw project has advanced, the food boxes have become more personalized per household per child and doing that on a national level would “not be feasible”, according to Briefel.
“To me the problem is one solution does not fit all people,” said Briefel. “We have different subgroups of the population, while the food boxes coming to your house might be a great supplemental source it’s taking away choice and other kinds of aspects of how people shop and make food.”
On the other hand, Briefel said some families struggle getting to the grocery store and the closest one could be 30 miles away, a situation that could be helped by a food distribution program.
The administration requested $30 million this year to fund a Harvest Box pilot program, according to an Office of Management and Budget list of proposed add-ons to fiscal 2018 discretionary spending obtained by Bloomberg Government.
It’s still unclear if the administration’s request will be included by the House Appropriations Committee in an upcoming fiscal 2018 catch-all omnibus bill. The proposal could instead find its way into the next farm bill. The current one expires Sept. 30.
“The Committee does not comment or speculate on policy or funding items that may or may not be included in future legislation,” Jennifer Hing, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, told Bloomberg Government.
“We can’t say what’s going to happen with it but I know that a number of members have raised serious eyebrows about it,” Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies said.
“There’s a lot of conversations about that, it’s very controversial and a lot of people are very concerned,” he said.
Republican lawmakers on the House and Senate Agriculture Committee have hinted changes to work requirements and eligibility for SNAP will happen in the next farm bill. But Democrats are reluctant to let anything happen to the program.
While Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Mike Conaway (R-Texas) is wary of the idea, he is not dismissing the proposal.
“During three years discussing SNAP this proposal has never been brought up,” a House Agriculture Committee aide, told Bloomberg Government.
The aide said Conaway has a lot of respect for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue who took credit for the Harvest Box idea and won’t “brush off” an idea from the USDA.
“As any good chairman he recognizes he needs to be open,” said the aide. “I think it’s just clear this is the beginning stage of all the different proposals.”
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