It was a marriage of “the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people [and] the best of the free enterprise system,” said President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, a way to combat hunger that would give recipients the ability to make their own food choices while avoiding a giant, Soviet-style food distribution scheme: food stamps.
Today, some 46 million low-income Americans receive food stamps’ modern incarnation—electronic benefits transfers from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. EBT cards in hand, recipients can decide for themselves which foods they want to eat instead of the government deciding for them.
That could all change. On Monday, the Trump administration issued a vague proposal to replace more than 40 percent of SNAP benefits given to recipients with a “Harvest Box” containing shelf-stable foods selected and distributed by the government.
Though the proposal was devoid of specifics—What about recipients who are allergic to the foods chosen for them? Parents with children who are fussy eaters? People with dietary restrictions? Who would box and deliver the food? Wouldn’t this all be much more expensive than an EBT transfer?—it would be a mistake to laugh this off as some ill-considered idea that will soon be forgotten. Ideas like this have already become policy; indeed, we regularly ship the equivalent of “Harvest Boxes” to the poor overseas. Why?
Clearly not in the service of any free-market ideal. It is hardly pro-market to displace the private sector and build a parallel, state-run distribution system, no matter how many times you name-check Blue Apron. This is the sort of thing you find in countries still recovering from socialist hangovers. India’s government, for example, buys more than 30 percent of the country’s grain output at above-market prices and then sells it back to consumers at below-market prices through ration shops. Emulating that approach by delivering the food in a box is hardly an innovation.
No, the “Harvest Box” approach to hunger policy makes sense only in the context of hunger politics. And hunger politics have always been as much about the welfare of agribusiness as about the welfare of the poor.
Consider international food aid. We regularly ship food produced here in the U.S. overseas for delivery to refugees and others at risk of hunger and malnutrition. This food makes up a meaningful share of America’s overall foreign aid (8 percent in 2013), yet the data suggest it is an inefficient approach: It is generally more expensive than either buying food locally and distributing it or simply giving the recipients cash or vouchers to purchase their own food. Rigorous experimental testing has shown that it does not even produce systematically better nutritional outcomes than giving out money. And it is a poorly kept secret that in many cases, the international food-aid recipients simply sell the food we give them and buy something else anyway, in which case the whole exercise amounts to little more than a very slow and expensive wire transfer (e.g. in Syria).
All of which is why humanitarian agencies are making a concerted effort to shift away from the “Harvest Box” approach of food aid, and toward unrestricted cash transfers instead. There is, in the words of Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council, “no longer serious dispute about whether cash can significantly improve humanitarian aid.”
But there is serious doubt that it will. At the end of the day, agencies can only distribute what funders give them. And to fight hunger and malnutrition, we continue to give them food purchased from U.S. producers and transported on U.S. ships. Both the Bush and Obama administrations proposed reforms to this system which would have allowed aid agencies to distribute more cash, or at least to buy food locally in the areas they work, or to relax the requirement that food be shipped on more expensive U.S. carriers. Both administrations’ moves were largely rejected by Congress under pressure from the shipping and agribusiness lobbies.
You can similarly see the farm lobby’s influence on the way the U.S. helps its own citizens. Food stamps are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture largely because when they were first created during the Great Depression, it was in part to dispose of surplus commodities that the USDA had accumulated through its farm-support programs. The U.S. is hardly alone in this. As leading food security scholar Christopher Barrett concludes, in most countries, “the quantity and type of food available has historically been driven primarily by the patterns of surpluses generated by farm support programs, not by recipient need.”
Perhaps most telling is the way that evidence on the impact of food stamps here in the U.S. has not altered policy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the USDA commissioned a series of rigorous, randomized controlled trials examining what would happen if people received money instead of food stamps. The tests showed that those who received money spent a bit more on housing and clothing and a bit less on food, but their malnutrition rates were no worse than those on food stamps. Overall, the results seemed positive—at least from the point of view of the recipients, but overall policy did not change as a result. Instead, the key lesson drawn from these studies was that people who got food stamps spent more on food; food stamps were better than cash transfers—not for low-income Americans, but for agribusiness.
Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that the present-day incarnation of food stamps, delivered via EBT, gives recipients so much flexibility to buy the food they want instead of the food the farm industry wishes to dispose of.
This, of course, is what “Harvest Boxes” would change.
One week after President Trump took office, a consortium of 10 of the largest agricultural lobby groups wrote to him lamenting that their subsidies had been “relentlessly attacked by previous administrations,” and urging him to “prioritize the use of American-grown in-kind commodity contributions” in fighting hunger.
If the “Harvest Box” is any indication, their pleas have found a receptive ear.