Trump's plan to replace grocery food stamps with boxes of canned goods is an insult to the poor

David Usborne
A woman collects provisions at a food bank for the poor in Los Angeles: Reuters

I am between the Beef Medallions & Scallion Salsa Verde and the Salmon & Dukkah Spiced Vegetables. Both are offerings right now on Blue Apron, an online site that allows you to become a Michelin chef for the night by the simple click of a mouse. Choose your ingredients and, hey presto (or pesto), they are at your front door. All you have to do is sling them on the stove.

Actually, Blue Apron has proved a bit too fancy for its own good with customers fleeing the start-up recently – revenue was down 13 per cent in the last quarter of 2017 – because its per-serving pricing starts at $9.99. Double that if you want wine. It is perhaps not the best model for what the White House has in mind for America’s Food Stamp programme for the poor.

But if you have a dumb idea you might as well pitch it in a dumb way. So it was for Mick Mulvaney, head of the Management and Budget Office, earlier this week when he went before the press to explain the highlights of Donald Trump’s latest draft budget for the federal government. Remaking the Food Stamp programme was the bit he seemed most excited about.

Food Stamps is a bit of a misnomer. Also known as SNAP, it has for the last four decades actually taken the form of the government distributing money to America’s poor to help them buy groceries. Where once they were sent coupons with a set monetary value, nowadays they actually get charge cards, topped up weekly by the government, which they take to the cash registers of supermarkets that accept them. Most do, including Walmart and Target.

Mulvaney doesn’t want to scrap the system entirely. But under this plan any household receiving $90 a month or more would start getting little boxes of food instead. That is 16 million households, or 80 per cent of everyone currently on SNAP. Allegedly this would save the government $129bn over ten years. So it fits into Trump’s broader strategy of slashing the social safety net wherever he can. Housing and healthcare subsidies suffer in his budget too.

Does introducing food rations for America’s poor sound a like a good idea to you? I didn’t think so. But Mulvaney muddles his Dukkah with his canned peaches, his medallions with his spam. The food parcels he has in mind are projected to cost $1.37 per serving, not quite $9.99.

“What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part – not all, part – of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” he cheerily told reporters. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food.”

White House Budget Chief Mick Mulvaney ​(AFP)

That he would evoke Blue Apron again betrayed the special tin ear worn by Republicans. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, was widely mocked last week when he posted a tweet in support of his party’s recent tax overhaul highlighting a teacher who was allegedly excited to see her pay cheque rise by $1.50 a week. That, “will more than cover her Costco membership for a year,” he said. No it won’t. And gee, six quarters! The gratitude of the working poor knows no end.

But back to the food rations. Isn’t there something insulting here? What does it say about this administration that it wants to set the dinner menus of so many millions of Americans instead of letting them buy what they think they and their children need as they do now? Aren’t Republicans about getting government out of people’s homes rather than in charge of their kitchens?

“Holy mackerel”, Kevin Concannon, who ran SNAP during the Obama years, commented to Politico, saying the plan conjured visions of the poor standing in lines waiting for someone to dole out helpings at a food kitchen. “I don’t know where this came from, but I suspect that the folks when they were drawing it up were also watching silent movies.” Of course, the big supermarket chains aren’t amused either. SNAP shoppers make up a huge chunk of their traffic.

We haven’t even asked whether the government could deliver these rations with any degree of competence. Perhaps it could seek advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. After October’s hurricane in Puerto Rico, it picked a one-woman company in Atlanta to prepare and ship 30 million ready-to-cook meals to the devastated island. It didn’t work so well. As the New York Times recently reported, she in turn sub-contracted the task to a wedding caterer with a staff of 11 people. They forgot to put the heating pouches in with the meals and managed to supply just 50,000 of them before the contract was cancelled.

It doesn’t inspire confidence also that the alleged savings touted by Mulvaney do not appear to take distribution costs into account. That would be for individual states to figure out. How do you get the boxes to those living in rural, remote areas? How do you take account of households with allergies, say to nuts? Likely items inside include canned fruits and vegetables, homogenised milk, possibly canned meats and deserts like apple sauce, but no fresh produce.

Blue Apron this would most certainly not be. But they have come up with a snappy name of their own for these putative bundles of nutrition and deliciousness: “America’s Harvest Box”. Let’s hope they never see the light of day. If they do, I don’t see many Americans giving thanks.