Nothing to love about food deserts

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Trump administration budget aims to slash SNAP by $213 billion

It’s Valentine’s Day, and I hoped to write a column appropriate for a love and indulgence holiday, however contrived. But that’s mentally difficult when new Trump administration proposals promote food deserts and scarcity.

On Monday, the administration announced its plan to slash food assistance for low-income families and replace it with a “Blue Apron-type program.”

“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,” said Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney during a policy briefing.

The Trump administration plans to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP and formerly known as food stamps, by $17 billion in 2019 and more than $213 billion over the next decade. Participating households — roughly 136,000 Iowans, and 16.4 million nationally — would see food assistance cut in half in favor of a Trump administration “harvest box,” which includes no fresh foods.

SNAP - White House budget director Mick Mulvaney speaks during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018.
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney speaks during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The administration says states would have greater jurisdiction over the program, including the creation of public-private partnerships to manage packing and distribution. Otherwise, details are sketchy. We do not know if all households would receive the same components and, if so, how that would work for people with specialized diets or food allergies.

At least in this instance, it appears the Republican administration believes government knows best.

Current SNAP benefits arrive on EBT cards, allowing beneficiaries to choose where to shop and what food is purchased. That flexibility has long been a point of criticism for conservatives, many of whom have falsely claimed recipients mostly use benefits to purchase unhealthy or extravagant items.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asked states in December for ways to combat supposed fraud and waste.

If Congress agrees with these cuts and program changes, food assistance will arrive with a stigma not witnessed since the depression era, with the ability to devastate local economies.

The same day the plan was announced a spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association for grocery stores, condemned it as inefficient and expensive. Jennifer Hatcher said the proposal offers “major changes but not changes that SNAP-authorized food retailers see as positive or even efficient.

“Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings. As the private partners with the government ensuring efficient redemption of SNAP benefits, retailers are looking to the administration to reduce red tape and regulations, not increase them with proposals such as this one.”

Large retailers — Walmart, for instance — will lose billions under the proposal. Already cash-strapped and thinning rural grocery stores, many of which rely on local shoppers with SNAP benefits, likely will be forced to close. The same holds true for groceries that have so far managed to stay in low-income neighborhoods.

The resulting food deserts will negatively impact all residents. Food scarcity leads to poor health and lower academic achievement. Loss of anchor businesses like grocery stores contributes to regional economic instability.

Iowa SNAP Benefits by LyndaWaddington on Scribd

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Feb. 15, 2018. Photo credit: Yuri Gripas/Reuters