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Serving: United States
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HOW WOULD ‘BOX’ WORK: President Donald Trump’s budget calls for cutting cash SNAP benefits by half, and supplementing the benefit with a monthly box of government-selected foods.

Cutting cash benefits and supplying boxes of food could be complicated

Proposal to provide boxes of food instead of cash for purchases is unlikely to be a better deal for recipients.

There is a long and storied history to the link between the program we now call SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the various programs that help farmers survive hard times in the markets or in nature to continue to grow the food that nourishes the world — including SNAP recipients.

It passes through historic names, including Bob Dole, George McGovern, Norman Borlaug and others.

In the last decade or so, there has been increasingly clear evidence that most of the people who currently serve in Congress wouldn’t know that connection if they ran straight into it.

There is a widespread perception that SNAP recipients get huge credits on their EBT cards that they then use to buy junk food, soft drinks, and luxuries such as high-priced steaks and seafood.

It rates right up there with the assumption that hundreds of farmers, who already make a pretty darn good income off their crops, get an additional “insurance check” or “subsidy check” in the mail that just pads their bottom line.

In reality, SNAP recipients get a food cost sharing benefit that presumes food requires about one-third of their net family income and they get a set benefit based on what the government thinks their food bill should be, minus their “fair share,” which is set by law at 30% of their net income.

In reality, farmers get a percentage-of-premium-cost subsidy to help them afford to pay for insurance that will pay them a maximum of 65% of the value of the average of their last five years of harvest if they have a loss.

Now we have a new proposal in the president’s budget to fix what’s wrong with SNAP and still preserve the integrity of the 2018 Farm Bill — which needs the votes of urban legislators who support SNAP to pass crop insurance, conservation incentives and periodic disaster ad hoc legislation.

The proposal is to cut SNAP cash benefits by half and give recipients a monthly “box” of food chosen by the government, which somehow magically empowers the recipients to have “more control” over their lives.

Equally amazing, this is supposed to save the government money. I’m at a total loss to figure out how.

The beauty of the EBT system is that it allows every household to buy the food it needs up to the limit of the benefit, whether it is spent in one week or four weeks, or carried over month to month.

It has a built-in system to give more money to big households than to small ones by simply increasing the subsidy based on family size and family income. Recipients with dietary needs, such as diabetes, simply buy the food they can eat.

How would that work for the “box?” How many cans of soup and canned beans go into the box? How many pounds of rice and lentils? How do you adjust? How do you prepare a box for a one-person household versus an eight-person household? How about a one-person household at 80 years of age vs. an eight-person household ranging from 4 to 80 years old?  How do you adjust the box for special diets? What kind of packaging and distribution system do you have? Who buys the commodities and who negotiates the price?

President Donald Trump called it kind of like Blue Apron. Well, here’s news: Blue Apron provides 2 meals a week for a family of four, eight plates, for a price of about $80 a week. I’m guessing the contents of the Trump box are not going to look much those in a Blue Apron box.

The Trump box, in order not to cost more than SNAP for the minimum-wage family of four, would have to be put together at a cost of half their total benefit, about $45 a week.

If you start delivering boxes of specific merchandise, how do you decide what to put where? Do you deliver door to door? Who packages? Who delivers? How do you track people who weren’t home? What if somebody calls to say nothing was delivered? Do you set up regional pick-up locations and expect recipients to pick up their box? How do you handle people who are disabled and can’t pick up?

Even if you have a geographical network with a “come here and get your box” network, somebody has to know how many boxes of what content belong where. Let’s admit it: Administratively, this plan would be costly and clumsy.

Now let’s talk about what farmers get.

In today’s EBT system, they get the assurance that debate on SNAP assistance gets paired with crop insurance. They know conservation subsidy programs get paired with feeding little kids. They get the satisfaction of knowing their production is helping to feed hungry people. (Incidentally, that applies to the Foreign Food Aid Bill as well.)

Put in a big box of whatever and cut the SNAP payment in half, and you get a puzzle of who picks what goes in the box and a 50% cut in what consumers voluntarily spend on food.

That doesn’t sound like a great idea for hungry families or for farmers.

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