USDA's America's Harvest Box Is A Terrible Idea For All

February 26, 2018

USDA's America's Harvest Box Is A Terrible Idea For All

The mishandling of how to explain this idea might well kill what could have been an idea worth exploring.

Originally published on

Since February 13 and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvanely first floated their concept of the “America’s Harvest Box” as a way to reduce costs and the number of people on foods stamps (or SNAP – the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) just about everyone has criticized the idea. And it’s their own fault. The mishandling of how to explain this idea might well kill what could have been an idea worth exploring. Not surprising coming from this White House though.

The Budget requests $19 billion for USDA (excluding changes in mandatory programs), a $3.7 billion or 16-percent decrease from the 2017 enacted level. The total proposed cuts would amount to $213 billion — or 30 percent— over the next 10 years. The Department of Agriculture budget starts on page 23 in the Administration’s “An American Budget”  and in its brief 4 pages, outlines how it wants to attempt to make many changes including improving nutrition, health and nutrition education and increase resources to promote sustainable agriculture.

In the paragraph, Reforming the Food Safety Net While Promoting Work, it states that the Budget proposes a bold new approach to nutrition assistance that combines traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies. Currently approximately 43 million Americans receive monthly SNAP benefits. The Administration is also requesting comments for ideas on how to shrink the roles of people on SNAP (you have till April 9, 2018 to add yours).

It’s the “provided directly to households” concept that has come under scrutiny (although many others have also questioned the latter part of that sentence regarding outcome-based employment strategies which makes some wonder if the next Administration slogan du jour becomes “no work-no eat”). Mulvaney’s statement that “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. It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that” has fueled the debate even further.

“America’s Harvest Box” as described by the Ag Secretary rather than as Blue Apron type-program which contains fresh food ingredients that you prepare and cook (which obviously Mulvaney has never seen), would include shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables and would account for approximately half of one’s SNAP benefits. I would argue that while some of the ingredients or canned products may have come from a harvest, the name certainly implies an abundance of fresh foods. The remainder of the SNAP benefits would be still distributed on EBT cards which recipients could continue to use at Farmer’s Markets; many of which double the value when one buys fresh produce.

Delivering this box to a recipient’s home is expensive, as Blue Apron, Peapod and others in the food delivery business have learned and can be a logistical nightmare, especially in some communities where leaving a box on a doorstep or unsecured area might be an invitation for theft and visually point out to neighbors who must rely on government assistance. Which ALSO leads to the question, just who would be handling the delivery of these boxes? FedEx? UPS? USPS? A new governmental agency or private company? And how will that additional cost be absorbed in a budget that has seen reductions? I quite doubt that creating an infrastructure that now buys wholesale from the likes of Kellogg’s and General Mills and then having all the products packed together and shipped will create savings, rather than a result in increased costs.

There already exists a model for this program. It’s the Senior Kits (CSFP) that provides monthly food assistance to low income seniors through food banks which now serves over 600,000 seniors across the U.S. but has come under fire for a lack of infrastructure including delivery and the assortment of the foods themselves.

Finally the Administration has reached out to the people who know food best – the food industry and is talking to retailers who IGA CEO John Ross estimates that anywhere from 13 to 30 percent of independent retailers sales come from SNAP recipients. AlixPartners, a retail consulting firm estimates that Walmart, the nation’s largest food retailer, could lose up to $70+ billion in sales over the next ten years asif this program becomes a reality. Walmart food sales in 2013, according to AlixPartners, included 18% of all food stamp redemptions in the US. Yesterday, the Administration finally started talking to grocers to explore how they can be involved in such a program and asked for their ideas. Something one could argue should have happened months before the concept was disclosed.

Frank DiPasquale, former Executive Vice President of the National Grocers Association and former CEO of the School Nutrition Association shared his insights with me in an email... “so, the party of the limited government wants to dictate what people should eat each and every day?  Appears that way.  Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Republican party, was insistent on limited government and the expansion and pursuit of liberty.  The current USDA, led by a Republican administration is proposing a change to the SNAP program that would make Jefferson wince.  The SNAP program has been one of the most efficient Federal programs, and ranks as one for the lowest fraud rate of any Federal program - is under assault”.  He went on to add “SNAP has been a wonderful example of industry, government and technology working together to deliver real value to those in need.”