“The fight against hunger does not belong to any one sector.  It has to be done in concert with charities, corporations and governments if we want to have a hunger-free society.”

That’s according to Carlos Rodriguez, executive director forFulfill, formerly the FoodBank for Monmouth and Ocean Counties in New Jersey, and incoming CEO for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, when asked to respond to the White House’sannouncementlast month that it was planning to replace a percentage of SNAP payments benefits with “Harvest Food Boxes.” These are food packages containing shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish, which the administration says could reduce the cost of the SNAP program by as much as $129 billion over the next ten years.

But these boxes will not give low income SNAP recipients what they really need — fresh food, and respect.  “The families on food stamps look like everyone else. A dad who lost his job, a single working mom struggling to put food on the table. There’s no substitute for going into the market and making decisions based on nutritional considerations, dietary restrictions, cultural needs and religious preferences. SNAP is an efficient, effective program that utilizes farmers' markets, grocers. The Harvest Boxes are simply a fixed set of commodities.”

Molly D. Anderson, PhD., the William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of food studies at Middlebury College, also worries that the food boxes will “take away even more autonomy from low-income people.”  Currently SNAP recipients can purchase almost any foods except hot prepared foods with their electronic benefit transfer cards, Anderson says. "The Harvest Food boxes don't include fresh fruits and vegetables — the foods most needed to counter the rise in obesity and diet-related disease. And they don't take into account whether the foods were produced and raised in sustainable ways," she adds.

“Twenty-five percent of our distribution is fresh produce,” Rodriguez says. When Americans fall on hard times, the “first thing to fall off the plate is nutritious foods. Empty calories are the most filling and the cheapest.”

The administration says its proposal “…will also improve the nutritional value of the benefit provided.” And much has been written about SNAP recipients squandering their money on non-nutritional foods like junk food and soda. But astudyconducted by the USDA in 2016 comparing what SNAP participants and non-SNAP participants purchased found that food purchases, consumption patterns, and dietary outcomes among the two groups were more similar than different, with SNAP participants spending just 1% more than non-SNAP households on items like soda.

The study broke down purchases between the two groups and found that:
  • About 40 cents of every food purchase dollar was spent on basic items like meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, and bread.
  • Another 20 cents was spent on sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy, and sugar.
  • The remaining 40 cents was spent on a variety of items such as cereal, prepared foods, other dairy products, rice, beans, and other cooking ingredients.
Buying a healthy diet is not cheap. Researchers for the Harvard School of Public Healthfoundthat the difference between eating a healthy diet — rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts, for example — instead of one consisting of unhealthy processed foods — was roughly $1.50 more per person per day. That’s “smaller than many people might have expected,” said senior study author Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor at HSPH and Harvard Medical School. “For 60% to 70% of Americans, $1.50 a day is not a big deal.” But itisa “big barrier” for the remaining 30% to 40% of the population.

And that figure is higher than previously estimated. Researchers from the Ohio State University Studyfoundthat a third of households — double previous estimates — struggle to get enough food. Researchers looked at households near a major — and economically and racially diverse — city corridor in Columbus, Ohio, to learn more about their access to food and particularly to healthful foods.

“Almost a third of the households were food insecure, and more than 16% had very low food security, meaning they were skipping meals, at risk for experiencing hunger and probably missing work and school and suffering health problems as a result,” said study lead author Michelle Kaiser, an assistant professor of social work at Ohio State. The study appears in theJournal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. Households that experience food insecurity have insufficient access to quality food, periodically don’t have the means to adequately and healthfully feed themselves and often rely on food banks and other sources for food.

The food boxes could potentially create more food deserts, and eliminate jobs, because grocers in those areas serviced by the food boxes are now at risk, Rodriguez said. Plus, SNAP recipients will further suffer because there's no adequate infrastructure in place to deliver the boxes.

According to a statement issued by the National Grocers Association (NGA), the trade association representing the independent supermarket industry: "Often considered the backbone of their community, America’s independent supermarket operators have long been indispensable partners in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food delivery system, serving millions of low-income households, including families with children, the elderly, and disabled. SNAP is one of the most efficient federal social safety net programs because retailers are the linchpin of a successful public-private partnership.  Fierce competition in the food retail industry drives consumer prices down, therefore benefiting those on a limited food budget more than anyone. NGA is extremely concerned with the President’s budget proposal, as it abandons the proven free-market model on the ill-advised assumption that the government can purchase and provide food more efficiently than its current private sector partners.”

Ultimately, the Harvest Boxes may end up costing more down the line because they don’t give people what they need, Rodriguez says.  “It will set us back,” he says.  “In order to bring down health care costs, we need to get in front of the problem.”  HSPH study author Mozaffarian said the economic costs of chronic diseases related to poor diet vastly exceed the higher price of healthy food, so there is a public benefit, therefore, to ensuring that everyone eats well.

“At Fulfill, we’ve gone from distributing a couple of thousand pounds of produce to a couple of million pounds of produce a year," said Rodriguez.

“The SNAP program allows families to apply what they learn from food banks, health organizations, and other organizations about nutritional value and dietary needs.  SNAP enables positive behavior change whereas fixed commodities are limited in their ability to do so.  Our society has an opportunity to eat better.  Let’s not put extra pressure on those with limited means.”

Rodriguez was among those who met with the Assembly Committee on Human Services this week in Trenton, N.J.  The committee passed a resolution affirming the values of the current SNAP program and articulating the shortcomings and their opposition to the Harvest Box proposal.  The Harvest Boxes will have to be approved by Congress before any changes take place.