By Greg Trotter
Anti-hunger groups and retailers are lining up to blast President Donald Trump's proposed overhaul of the federal food stamp program, which would convert electronic food benefits for millions into boxes of packaged food.
The so-called America's Harvest Box program _ part of the $4.4 trillion budget plan released by the White House Monday _ would dramatically alter how food assistance for the poor is delivered in the United States. The program calls for delivering boxes of shelf-stable food like cereal, peanut butter, beans and canned vegetables in lieu of half the electronic benefits for most households that depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The other half of their benefits would still be provided electronically, using Link cards in Illinois.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food assistance program, said the plan would save $129.2 billion over 10 years. But questions outnumber answers as to how exactly the program would work. Where would the boxes be assembled and how would they be delivered? What will it cost Illinois to deliver boxes of food to thousands of households each year? What does the family with the nut allergy do with the jar of peanut butter in the box?
"We view this as an unworkable solution in search of a problem," said Matt Knott, president of Chicago-based Feeding America, a national network of food banks and pantries.
Knott and many other anti-hunger groups, such as the Greater Chicago Food Depository, say the existing program works exactly as it should, contracting and expanding to help Americans in times of need.
"We continue to see deep, pressing need every day, in every neighborhood of Chicago. The proposal to cut SNAP is deeply troubling," said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, on Tuesday.
A day earlier, the Food Marketing Institute _ the grocery industry trade group representing Chicago retailers like Jewel-Osco, Mariano's, Walmart and Aldi _ issued a statement opposing the plan.
"Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings," said Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer for the institute, in the statement.
Under the proposal, households receiving $90 per month or more in benefits _ more than 80 percent of all SNAP households _ would receive the boxes of "domestically sourced and produced" food, according to the USDA. The logistics of delivery would be largely left to the discretion of the states.
It's unclear whether the proposal will gain any traction in Congress, where the federal food aid program has generally enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. In recent years, though, that's changed as Speaker Paul Ryan and other House Republicans have called for overhauling the program to give states more control.
In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called it a "bold, innovative approach" that maintains the supplemental food assistance while giving states more flexibility and being responsible to taxpayers.
But former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Perdue's immediate predecessor, said the cuts would be unfair to senior citizens and working parents who make up the vast majority of SNAP recipients. Such an overhaul would also adversely affect farmers' incomes and grocery store workers' jobs, Vilsack said.
"It's the wrong program to pick on. SNAP is one of the most successful anti-poverty programs that we have. I know it's expensive, but a lot of things are expensive," Vilsack said in an interview, noting proposed increases to military spending.
Trump's proposed 2019 budget calls for cutting $216 billion in total from the food assistance program over 10 years, said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The budget adds an additional $2.5 billion over that time period for the delivery of the food boxes _ an amount that's unlikely to be enough for such an undertaking, Dean said.
"I think it's a huge unfunded mandate," Dean said.
The president's proposal did find some measure of support from the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, which has advocated for the existing program to be limited to healthier food options, given the higher health risks for conditions like diabetes among recipients. But Dr. Neal Barnard, the group's president, said the food boxes should include fresh fruits and vegetables, and he recommended forgoing the logistically cumbersome delivery model.
Still, Barnard said he considered the White House's proposal to be a step in the right direction.
Whether SNAP recipients should be more restricted in the foods they can buy with their benefits is a matter of much debate that crosses party lines. Some take issue with the fact that taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize chips and soda purchases. But limiting freedom to make those decisions by instead providing boxes of food will only increase stigma and, as a result, decrease participation in the program, said Craig Gundersen, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"If the goal is to increase hunger in the United States, this is a good proposal," Gundersen said.
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