4 messed-up things about our food benefits programs that you might not know about

Unless you’ve been enrolled in a food benefit program, it’s hard to get familiar with our current systems, which might be why some people think that the Trump administration’s “Blue Apron-style” food box program for SNAP recipients is a good idea. Spoiler: It’s really not. In fact, the box idea takes all the problems with our current food benefit systems and puts them in one place. It is not a good idea for so many reasons.

The administration wants to modify the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that people who get at least $90 a month in benefits — which accounts for about 80 percent of all SNAP recipients — would no longer get to choose their food. Instead, they’d get a “USDA Foods package” that would include “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.” The boxes would not include fresh fruits or vegetables, and the details are still being worked out about how it would actually work, so nothing is even close to going into effect yet.

With SNAP, recipients get cards and are allowed to purchase whatever they want, as long as it meets the guidelines. This means fresh veggies and fish and meat, but also soda and snacks, which is why some people assume it’s a waste of taxpayer money and worry that the program contributes to bad health outcomes in lower income families. The Women Infant and Children program (WIC) is another program open to low income women and their kids by giving them coupons to buy formula and certain “healthy” foods, but that is also rife with catches and issues. Here are some of them.

1It makes shopping all but impossible.

SNAP feels like it brings with it a ton of choices, it’s still restricted in that you can’t get hot food or non-grocery items, so you’re out of luck if you need to pick up toilet paper and dinner. But at least there’s some freedom to choose ingredients for a meal that kids will actually eat and you know how to cook. WIC is so much worse.

A family gets vouchers that lets them buy certain things, but items are bundled together so that you can get a dozen (white, no brown or cage free) eggs and a gallon of milk, or some formula and peanut butter but not formula and meat (since breastfeeding baby households don’t qualify for meat). The fresh veggie coupons are bundled together, too, so you often have to buy your produce all at once. Once a month.

Although the program keeps people fed, it doesn’t make it easier or even all that much healthier. Ask anyone who’s had to shop with WIC about how much milk they had to end up with or how many times they had to run back to the aisle because they got the drinkable yogurt, which is not allowed, and not the kind in a cup, which is. It’s the same sort of thing that would likely happen to SNAP recipients who get the boxes, full of shelf stable milk and dry pasta, over and over again.

2The restrictive programs cost more.

Linnea E. Sallack, director of the W.I.C. program in the California Department of Health Services, told the New York Times, ”We consistently find that prices charged in W.I.C.-only stores are higher, on average, than in other stores. If food prices are high, for whatever reason, it means that our federal grant cannot go as far and cannot serve as many people.” So being restrictive ends up costing taxpayers more in the long run, instead of just giving someone an EBT card (which still has its limitations) to shop for that they want.

3The restrictions further stigmatize hunger.

The implication with all the restrictions is that poor people can’t be trusted to make decisions about what to feed their family. While it’s true that studies show there’s a link between obesity and heart disease and poverty, getting strict about what people can eat with their benefits or just sending them a pre-packaged box, isn’t going to help that. Neither is pretending that fraud is rampant within the SNAP system; it’s actually quite rare, around 2 percent. Most recipients, around 40 percent, also work and stay on the program for less than a year.

Although there are tons of good things about both programs — feeding people anything at all — the issue is not that people are making bad choices in the aisle. According to research, soda is the number one thing in SNAP recipients carts (WIC recipients can’t buy it).

But it’s the second most popular thing in the carts of people who aren’t on SNAP, so be careful about who you judge. Having to explain your vouchers to a cashier or feel guilty for having string cheese — the only thing your toddler will eat at the moment — instead of a bunch of bananas in your cart is humiliating. Hopping around stores so you can get groceries and laundry detergent is equally ridiculous. You can’t shame people out of poverty — you have to lift them up. Nutrition, health, and culinary education, and giving people the chance to buy what they like and want with their benefits, can do that more than mailing a box of government cheese and some canned string beans. No one wants to eat that. Especially not with a glass of low-fat milk.

4We ignore that SNAP works.


SNAP generally works for its intended goal really well, which is why it’s infuriating that the Trump administration wants to get rid of it. Again, there are tons of restrictions we impose on people due to stigma with the SNAP program, but overall the EBT card system works. Consistent access to benefits can lift families out of poverty, lead to better health outcomes, and even help kids do better in school, which means better job choices later on and a chance to break the cycle. Funding SNAP and keeping the “social safety net” is how we eradicate food insecurity, not by boxing up a bunch of food lobbyists petitioned to get on the “acceptable” list and serving it up to people who might not like, want, or be able to eat it.