Food Policy

USDA's 'Harvest Box' Food-Shipping Proposal Is Truly Absurd

Poor people are likely to make better food choices for themselves than the government.


canned food
Oleg Doroshin /

When I was around 12 years old, my grandfather, a stockbroker, had a debilitating stroke. My grandmother hadn't worked, so my grandfather had served as the sole breadwinner for the couple. He'd also apparently been in charge of the family's finances and, in this role, had neither saved a dime in his life nor planned for retirement—unless, that is, consuming copious amounts of Budweiser (my dad insists it was Ballantine Ale) was part of some unrealized retirement plan.

With my grandfather in a rest home, my grandmother moved from a rented apartment near my family and into an elderly housing complex that was even closer by. (Our house lacked a spare bedroom or else, I like to think, we'd have taken her in.)

My grandmother's indigent status meant she qualified not just for housing but also for food aid. It came in the form of government cheese, butter, and peanut butter. Maybe there was more to it, such as other foods or food stamps. I never knew. But I did know about the food aid because my grandmother, who I spent time with every week, would give whatever peanut butter the government provided to her to my family. I guess, in retrospect, that she didn't like peanut butter. My mom didn't know what to do with the peanut butter, which came in a giant tub and wasn't as creamy as our usual Skippy. But I always wolfed it down. I'd spread it on crackers or celery or even spoon it out of the starkly labeled government container while parked in front of our television.

As a kid, I never thought even a little about how it was weird that I was gorging on taxpayer-provided peanut butter that my family didn't need—both because we could afford to buy peanut butter and because we in fact did buy it. In more recent years, though, I've often thought about that peanut butter as a metaphor for many of the problems—including fraud and waste—that are evident in government-funded domestic food aid programs.

Which brings us to the U.S. Derpartment of Agriculture's plans, proposed last week, to replace its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) with something called Harvest Boxes.

Under the plan, the USDA would slash the food-purchasing benefits of SNAP and replace them with delivered packages of canned fruits and meats, cereal, pasta, and the like.

A USDA official tried to spin the proposal as akin to Blue Apron, the upscale (and Juicero-level pointless) meal delivery service.

That's the spin. But criticism of the proposal has been both widespread and withering. Reason's Eric Boehm likens it to "Amazon Prime, but for terrible canned food selected by bureaucrats." Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) called the proposal a "'cruel and demeaning and an awful idea' that would strip families of the ability to choose which groceries they buy." USA Today's editorial board dubbed the harvest box proposal "a program fresh from Cold War Bulgaria."

"The proposal has drawn widespread criticism from advocates for the poor, who see it as a paternalistic 'nanny state' approach that also happens to favor agricultural producers," reports the L.A. Times. "Retailers who accept SNAP debit cards also worry about lost sales, even as leaders of food banks worry about additional work preparing the meal boxes."

The USDA has gone on the offensive and has defended the harvest box idea as a "bold proposal."

"It's a real idea. It's not a sham. It's not a silly proposal," USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in remarks apparently designed to convince everyone that this wasn't some sort of early April Fools' joke. "It's something that we'd like to see seriously considered, and debated."

I'm not a knee-jerk Perdue hater. On school lunch reforms, for example, I'd previously noted he'd "got[ten] all his facts right." But the harvest box idea is truly rotten to the core and unworthy of consideration.

Supporters outside the USDA offices have been difficult to locate. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which I refer to in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, as "a pro-vegan group," is one of the few to have come out in favor of the harvest box proposal, calling it "a step toward ensuring that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants get the grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit they need to stay healthy."

The Trump administration says the harvest box plan would help save taxpayers nearly $13 billion per year. But for an administration that proposed to add nearly $1 trillion to the budget deficit next year alone, any cost-cutting plan mustn't be taken at face value.

There's no doubt SNAP is a program in need of serious reform. But if the idiotic harvest box proposal isn't the answer to supplementing the diets of Americans who can't afford to buy enough food, what is the answer?

Besides private aid (in the form of cash, food, or both) provided voluntarily by individuals and nonprofits, which works, the government has a role to play. But that role isn't providing SNAP benefits, and it certainly isn't providing boxes of canned tuna.

The government should do no more and no less than giving cash to those in need. They're best positioned to determine their food needs and—objectively—are the only ones who know their food preferences and those of their families.

This idea has been suggested in the pages of the Atlantic, NPR (more than once), and right here at Reason. It's real reform that can benefit those in need. No boxes required.