Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board
There’s no question the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, is past its expiration date for reform.
But cutting benefits for families truly in need and slapping a yuppie name on a prior era’s same old box of non-perishable goods isn’t it.
Yet that is what the proposal buried in President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request is being painted as doing – it would cut cash benefits in half for families receiving more than $90 a month and send them an attractively named Harvest Box instead. The pitch says federal taxpayers could save 50 percent over retail costs – about $129 billion over a decade.
Supporters, like Merrill Matthews at the conservative Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation, say it could ensure that families are receiving nutritious food while also addressing the issue of “food deserts,” where there are few if any grocery stores. Both are laudable goals.
But here are issues that spoil that line of thinking:
1. The proposal does not solve the real problems with the $71 billion-a-year SNAP program, the most glaring one being fraud. The Journal did investigative pieces in 2016 that showed more than 2,000 New Mexico recipients had balances on their SNAP Electronic Benefits Cards well over $2,000. As the Journal argued then, “food stamps are supposed to be a safety net program that helps people get by – now. They are not supposed to be a savings program that enables people to sell federal benefits on the black market for cash.” Yet that was and is still happening.
Around one in four New Mexicans is on SNAP (more than 470,000). While replacing some of the EBT dollars with boxes of food will lower the amount of fraud, it doesn’t erase it. And it is not nearly as effective as requiring routine reviews of EBT balances, placing caps on accrued amounts and setting tighter limits on non-use.
2. The proposal doesn’t factor in a family’s food allergies, medical needs or likes or dislikes. Sending peanut butter and “shelf-stable” milk to a family with a peanut allergy or lactose intolerance is most likely sending taxpayer dollars straight to the trash. Sending a family sugary juice doesn’t reduce the risk of diabetes, and families with medically fragile members likely need more than beans and rice.
3. The proposal creates an entire bureaucracy around manufacturing, supplying contents for, filling and shipping these food boxes. Anyone with an ounce of healthy skepticism has to wonder who benefits from those contracts, and if the estimated cost savings will really pan out.
4. The proposal uses half of recipients’ benefits for boxes of food that by definition can not be fresh. They include juice, grains, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat and fish, canned fruits and vegetables and “shelf-stable” milk. How does this diet address the raging obesity/diabetes epidemic we have in New Mexico? If the concern is that SNAP benefits are being used for junk food, then lawmakers should set limits on what’s now allowed. And New Mexico has a much better model than sending families a box of starch and preservatives: the Double Up Food Bucks program uses matching funds to double the value of SNAP benefits used for fresh produce and other offerings at local farmers’ markets.
5. The proposal cuts the amount local families spend on food, taking money out of the local economy and reducing the viability of proposals to address the need for more nutritious grocery options in so-called food deserts.
If Trump wants to save money on SNAP and honor the ‘N’ that stands for nutrition, he should propose long-past-due reforms that cut abuse and the purchasing of junk food.
Too many New Mexicans and Americans depend on SNAP to stretch their grocery dollars. Sending out boxes of packaged food nobody wants won’t help them or taxpayers.