"America's Harvest Box."
That's what the Trump administration called its plan to substitute prepackaged, low-quality processed foods for some of the food assistance currently being received by an estimated 46 million people (based on numbers for 2015, the last year for which data are available).
The term "harvest box" has been used by benign programs that distribute local produce like this one, and for USDA pilot programs in Maryland and Virginia designed to offer "seamless access to locally produced food and products" and to "boost rural economic development."
That's not the kind of “harvest box” Trump has in mind. People would not receive freshly harvested food under his administration's proposal. In fact, as farmers' groups have pointed out, it would hamper recipients’ ability to buy fresh farm products at farmers' markets.
Kind of Blue
White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney doubled down on this double-talk when he compared the proposed program to "Blue Apron," a high-end online service that delivers ready-to-cook gourmet meals to customers' homes.
Is that an apt comparison? According to its website, Blue Apron's menu for last week included "katsu-style wild Alaskan pollock with cabbage slaw and rice, soy-glazed Korean rice cakes with broccoli and soft boiled eggs," and "pork chops and balsamic-pear compote with fennel and sweet potatoes."
Trump's "harvest boxes," by contrast, would deliver "staple, shelf-stable foods (such as shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables)." These are low-quality, unhealthy foods whose "stability" depends on preservatives that have been shown to harm the human body. As the American Cancer Society notes, these preservatives can also have a carcinogenic effect.
Almost two-thirds of the people who receive federal food aid are children, elderly, or disabled. But there are no foods on the proposed menu for infants or small children – or, for that matter, for expectant or nursing mothers. Nor is any consideration given to the special dietary needs of certain disabled and older Americans.
Trolling, Agitating, Misdirecting
A headline in Vox.com reads, "Trump wants to replace food stamps with food boxes, for some reason," even as a New York Times headline assures readers that the plan isn't "viable." It isn't: The packaging alone would drive up costs and wreak havoc on the environment. The lack of food choices would hamper public health. The challenge of delivering millions of boxes each week would create chaos.
But "viability" isn't the goal, and the administration's motives aren't that hard to discern. The Times article offers a glimpse of those motives, quoting unnamed administration as admitting that the idea “had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon." The officials characterized it, in the Times’ words, as “a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party ..."
"Outraging liberals" – that is, trolling and provoking them – is a major goal for Republicans in Trump's White House and on Capitol Hill, although it’s not exactly clear why. It makes more sense to “stir up" Republican extremism, since that advances their agenda.
The proposal is also a work of misdirection. The "Blue Apron" pitch has received much more attention than the administration's primary goal: a brutal set of cuts to food programs that provide a lifeline to children, the elderly, the disabled, and other poor Americans.
It also reinforces the unfounded belief that private corporations are more efficient than government programs. As Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue crowed in a statement, it’s a "bold, innovative approach." That’s venture capital lingo – a way of saying they’re “disrupting” food assistance, like Blue Apron disrupted grocery shopping.
But if you look beyond its menu, Blue Apron is a disaster. It has been fined for safety violations and faced reports of other labor problems. It's terrible for the environment, and it lost at least a quarter of a million customers last year.
As with the other private-powered "solutions" to public problems championed by this administration, corporate interests are the big winners. "America's Harvest Box" would become another opportunity for big businesses to enrich themselves at public expense. Large farm corporations, not family farms, would likely provide the raw foodstuffs. Other corporations would provide the packaging and distribution.
And, while Mulvaney insists that "It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices]," it's highly unlikely that Republicans would strike a very hard bargain with their corporate allies. They've blocked all attempts to negotiate with Big Pharma for Medicare and the VA. Why would they start now?
The Hate Factor
The proposal is also a new way for Trump and his fellow Republicans to demonize poor people and turn them into the Other, something they've been doing since Richard Nixon told lies about "welfare Cadillacs" and "welfare queens." Here’s a quick history.
There is a strong subtext of racism in the “harvest box” pitch, although 37 percent of people receiving food assistance are white. (Roughly one in every four recipients is African-American, and another one in four is Hispanic.
In announcing the idea, Mulvaney said people would "actually receive the food instead of receive the cash." He knows full well that food assistance isn't provided as cash and can only be redeemed for food. His "cash" lie serves to reinforce bigoted stereotypes about the poor.
What Goes Around
SNAP, once known as "food stamps," is not an overly generous program; it addresses a pressing need. The average person receives $32 per week in food benefits. As the Peter G. Peterson Foundation notes, most recipients are impoverished, and 42 percent live in "deep poverty."
The maximum monthly benefit for a two-person household is $357. It forces poor people to spend one-third of their income on food, so that a household with $500 in monthly income (that's $6,000 per year) has its benefits cut to $207 per month.
As mentioned before, nearly two-thirds of recipients are children, elderly, or disabled. Others are single parents. Some have been impoverished by structural racism, others by the economic collapse that has gripped entire swaths of our nation.
The administration and its GOP allies are threatening these Americans with even greater hunger and privation. They are stigmatizing them and waging war on their spirit. Poverty is a grinding ordeal, and they're making it worse. They should be mindful of another "harvest"-related statement, of considerably more ancient vintage: As ye sow, so shall ye reap.