Perdue doubles down on support for SNAP Harvest Box program

At the annual USDA Ag Outlook Forum, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue doubled down on his support for the recently proposed “Harvest Box” food stamp program. Asked about where the agency is getting support for the program and whether Congress will fund a pilot, Perdue provided some elaboration on his vision for the program but offered little evidence of growing support.

The program, included in last week’s 2019 budget proposal, would replace half of SNAP recipients’ benefits with a box of preselected food items, including meat, beans, shelf-stable milk, vegetables, and cereals.

The USDA has defended the plan as a way to ensure SNAP recipients are achieving the full nutritional potential of their benefits. Critics have said the program gives SNAP recipients less choice, and business groups said that grocery retailers could lose billions of dollars of SNAP sales.

“We’re looking at doing more with less,” Perdue said at the forum. “Rather than just dismissing it out of hand, let’s decide how we can improve.”

Currently, SNAP recipients receive their benefits on an EBT card, which they can use at any participating retailer to buy food products. There are some restrictions — for instance, SNAP funds can’t be used to buy prepared foods or non-food items.

Virtually no hunger, food access, or public health organizations have stepped up to defend the Harvest Box program. To date, the only such organization to publicly support the plan is the vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The group said in a statement that the program “is a step toward ensuring that [SNAP] participants get the grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit they need to stay healthy.”

Perdue said that the USDA still has to “work out the details” of the program, particularly when it comes to how participants would receive the Harvest Boxes. “Admittedly,” he said, “it would be very difficult to roll out a U.S.-wide, global network of delivery.” He said he could imagine a partnership with the U.S. Postal Service to handle logistics. The budget proposal says simply that “states will have substantial flexibility in designing the food box delivery system through existing infrastructure, partnerships, or commercial/retail delivery services.”

One new development from Perdue’s comments was the proposal that the USDA could develop “10 to 20 different SKUs of different kinds that people could order based on their family preferences.” Prior descriptions of the program have not mentioned providing any options to Harvest Box recipients.

When asked if Congress would support the proposal, Perdue said that he thinks Congress is “looking for new ideas as well.” He said that if “Congress would allow us to have a pilot, then we would welcome that.”

Initial reactions to the program from Congress weren’t particularly positive. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, told the New York Times that the Harvest Box program “isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction.” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, told the paper that he thinks the proposal is “dead on arrival.”

Meanwhile, the USDA is still promoting the idea to the public. In an op-ed this week in USA Today, Brandon Lipps, the USDA’s acting undersecretary for Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, wrote that the program will “fulfill our commitment to helping people who need assistance, while also dealing with the nation’s fiscal situation.” He wrote that the Harvest Boxes would save $129 billion over 10 years.

SNAP and other nutrition programs account for about 80 percent of farm bill funds. In 2016, more than 44 million people participated in SNAP.