Welfare reform advocates and local groups catering to the poor and hungry spent Tuesday wrapping their heads around an unorthodox policy proposal from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Was his idea to replace some food stamp payments with boxes of federally picked foods visionary or draconian?
The proposal at hand was tucked deep within the Trump administration’s 2019 budget request released Monday. In it, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would swap some federal food stamp money for “harvest boxes.”
Combined with other changes requested in the budget, the proposal would constitute the biggest overhaul of the government’s food safety-net system since it was created roughly a half-century ago.
The Perdue proposal would send all households receiving at least $90 a month in food stamps — about 81 percent of program participants, or 16.4 million households — a package of “nutritious, 100-percent U.S. grown and produced food” containing nonperishable items such as shelf-stable milk, cereal, peanut butter, canned meat, fruits and vegetables.
The boxes would replace half of those recipients’ monthly benefits, the Agriculture Department said. The rest would be delivered as usual through the program’s Electronic Benefit Transfer card system.
White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney referred to the concept as a “Blue Apron-type program,” referring to the high-end meal service that sends customers fresh ingredients such as fish and produce for individually apportioned meals.
Perdue called the proposal a “bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families.”
“It maintains the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive, provides states flexibility in administering the program, and is responsible to the taxpayers,” Perdue said in a statement, referring to the acronym for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name of the food stamp program.
The proposal caught many observers off guard. The concept is not one that has circulated widely, and especially not among Republicans, who generally prefer less federal intervention, not more.
Indeed, many of Perdue’s political allies kept their distance Tuesday. Some declined to comment. Others said they were still learning the details of the proposal.
Among those who did speak up in favor, some said the proposal was valuable in that it highlighted the broader need for overhauling the welfare system.
”Here’s the real lesson: If you want government to take care of you, guess what? You get nanny government,” said Benita Dodd, vice president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
But Dodd also worried the program “could become a costly logistical challenge for government” to deliver such meals.
Meanwhile, the program’s detractors were loud and passionate. They said it evoked images of the Great Depression.
“Drawing backward to a soup line mentality — ‘here’s a cold sandwich and some soup’ — is something that I would have hoped we’d left in the past,” said Georgia state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.
Even some of Perdue’s longtime political allies were critical.
“What they’re trying to do is demean these people,” said U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee who served with Perdue in the Georgia Senate in the 1990s. “Food stamp recipients should be able to buy food from the grocery store just like you and I.”
Agribusinessman Alec Poitevint, a longtime Perdue confidante, said he had not seen the proposal but that if the former Georgia governor was pitching the idea, it “would be one he thinks would do a more effective job of providing the services that we want to provide in the most efficient method.”
One group that saw potential in the proposal was the Georgia Peanut Commission.
“Peanut butter is a shelf-stable, protein-packed food that the majority of Americans enjoy, so it seems only fitting to include as a product in the potential harvest box,” the group said in a statement, noting that it already donates peanut products to food banks.
The Agriculture Department said the proposal would save more than $129 billion over 10 years and would provide flexibility for states administering the program.
Kyle Waide, the CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, vehemently disagreed with that assessment. SNAP is already flexible and provides recipients with healthy food options, he said.
Overhauling the program in such a fashion would only shift the burden of feeding the poor even more on to food banks, Waide added.
“We think it would require us to grow dramatically overnight to be able to respond to that increase in demand in ways that we think is unlikely for all food banks would be able to support,” he said.
The proposal is unlikely to go anywhere fast on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are already deeply divided over entitlement proposals.
Food stamp use down
Georgia in recent years has seen a major decrease in its number of SNAP recipients, mainly as a result of the rebounding economy. The number of Georgians receiving assistance dropped 16 percent between April 2013 and last summer, from 1.9 million to 1.6 million.
Despite the falling number, food stamp use has remained relatively high while considering the improved economic conditions.
Perdue for months has spoken about the need to think differently about the SNAP program, and Monday’s proposal represents one of his most significant to date to overhaul the biggest safety-net program under his purview.
His department has announced plans for “increased cooperation” with states regarding the administration of SNAP, which critics see as a move to eventually allow for the drug testing of recipients or the enactment of stricter work requirements.
Critics say allegations of fraud are overblown — the current trafficking rate is roughly 1 percent, and more than half of participants are kids, elderly and disabled people who need the help. They say food stamp regulations unfairly target the poor.
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Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.