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Susan E. Reed Humiliating people who need SNAP by picking their meals for them is Dickensian

The Administration's food assistance program would be worse in almost every conceivable way than the current system.
Image: Sunny Larson, Zak McCutcheon
Sunny Larson and Zak McCutcheon pick produce while gathering provisions to take home at the Augusta Food Bank in Augusta, Maine on March 27, 2017.Robert F. Bukaty / AP file
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Whatever the occasion, food is one of our best companions: In times of despair or celebration, food provides comfort, strength and resilience and spurs memories of warmth, love and tradition. One of the worst memories of childhood is having to eat foods one doesn't like. That problem is usually overcome as an adult, because grownups don't have to eat what they don't want.

That is, until the government sends its most impoverished citizens an unwanted package of pre-selected processed foods.

That is probably the worst part of the Trump administration's new proposal to replace half of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits with a box of packaged and canned foods: It denies the recipients their choice of what to eat. Food is one of the few areas of life in which almost everyone can indulge in what they want; it's one of the few cheap thrills left, no matter what one's resources.

And this administration plans to take even that limited liberty away from those who have little financial ability to indulge in any of life's other pleasures.

Food is one of the few areas of life in which almost everyone can indulge in what they want; it's one of the few cheap thrills left, no matter what one's resources.

They apparently seek to infantilize those in economic need by preselecting their food, instead of fostering a desire to please their own palate. People who don’t like what they’ve been given — be it canned and overcooked mushy peas or grayish green beans — will not eat them, potentially leading to substantial waste.

Under the proposed deal, people who receive at least $90 per month (which is more than 80 percent of those enrolled in SNAP or government food assistance) would be given boxes of "shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables" and have the cost deducted from their benefits. (Budget Director Mick Mulvaney compared the plan to the high-end Blue Apron, which provides its customers with ingredients to make up to three meals per week, for $140 per week for a family of four in New York City.)

The mind races to imagine what epicurean delights could be made of such ingredients envisioned by the Trump proposal: Macaroni salad with mixed canned vegetables, three bean salad, fruit cocktail cake — all a bit reminiscent of a bland 1950’s potluck.

the latest proposal does not adequately tackle the most pressing food issue faced by the poor these days: Health risks have changed over the years from food insufficiency to obesity.

Once known as food stamps (because they were distributed as paper stamps with monetary denominations), the purpose of SNAP is to help low-income households achieve a “nutritionally adequate low-cost diet” by boosting their purchasing power for groceries with an electronic benefit transfer card they can use at authorized stores, commissaries and, in some states, farmers’ markets.

Sending the poor a box of packaged food may revive problems that the EBT cards were designed to solve, such as theft and even stigmatization. Under the old food stamp program, there was no hiding who was using the colorful bills that resembled cash at the grocery checkout counter. But swiping an EBT card made those struggling with hard times less visible. If the new proposal goes through, however, neighbors and delivery people will be able to see who is receiving the government packages.

And, while the EBT cards largely solved the theft of mailed food stamps, packages waiting on an unattended porch or in an unsecured mailroom easily could be stolen. While discovering the contents could be disappointing for the thief, needy families would be deprived of half their monthly food supplement.

There is also the logistical challenge of mailing bricks of canned goods and packaged milk: Their weight will make them costly to ship, and back-breaking to deliver for aging mail carriers, a third of whom are nearing retirement.

It feels Dickensian to limit people’s selection of food, especially when we live in the world’s largest food exporter.

And, though the average number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits fell 11 percent from from 2013 to 2017, according to the most recent report, the White House still wants to reduce spending on SNAP by $129 billion over the next 10 years.

Moreover, the latest proposal does not adequately tackle the most pressing food issue faced by the poor these days: Health risks have changed over the years from food insufficiency to obesity. The Department of Agriculture, which would supply the food, needs to examine whether refined carbohydrates in ready to eat cereals and pasta, combined with tinned fruits and vegetables in cans lined with the controversial BPA, are really in the best long-term health interests of consumers. (The Food and Drug Administration has said that BPA, an industrial chemical used in plastics, is safe when consumed at low levels, but the National Institutes of Health has suggested that concerned parents make a personal choice to reduce their children’s consumption of canned foods.)

Finally, it’s difficult to see how supermarkets or farmers’ markets would be content with the new proposal which would essentially deprive them of half the business they receive under the current system.

Even if the government were to solve distribution challenges by operating out of community locations (the way that food banks work), the nutritional problems by diversifying the contents of the packages, the cost and the stigmatization of receiving aid, it still feels Dickensian to limit people’s selection of food, especially when we live in the world’s largest food exporter. In the richest country in the world, we should not strip our most economically marginalized citizens of their dignity of choice and privacy, let alone force them to tell us, "Please, sir, I'd like some more."

Susan E. Reed is a columnist who writes about international affairs, politics and social justice issues. Her opinions have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and on WBUR's Cognoscenti.

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