We are old enough to remember when Michelle Obama was pilloried for suggesting that school lunches should include less salt and some vegetables beyond the tomatoes in the pizza sauce. She was turning this into a “nanny state,” her critics said. Rush Limbaugh responded by calling her fat.
“Try eating a biscuit made with whole grains,” Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts said last year, in support of the Trump administration’s rapid rollback of that healthier fare in school cafeterias. “It just doesn’t work” because it’s not what kids want and winds up wasted.
So how surprising that this same freedom-loving, choice-respecting administration wants to tell those receiving nutritional assistance exactly what their families should eat — and then deliver it to them in a carton they’re calling “America’s Harvest Box.” In this case, the “harvest” would include powdered milk, canned meat and various other non-perishable items that might or might not take into account that particular family’s needs, ages or allergies. Right now, the average recipient gets about $126 a month to spend on food.
The White House budget would cut food stamps outright. But buying food in bulk also “lowers the cost to us,” said Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget. Overall, the president would cut spending on food stamps by $214 billion over a decade.
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Mulvaney tried to make not having to choose what you eat sound like a selling point: “You actually receive the food instead of receive the cash.” Sending out boxes of peanut butter and cereal “also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food, so we’re pretty excited about that.” As ever, the supposition is that those in need of food assistance cannot be trusted to make the right choices. And what was it they said about the nanny state again?
He compared “America’s Harvest Box” to the upscale Blue Apron meal-kit delivery service, which provides lovingly assembled “farm-fresh seasonal produce, meat with no added hormones and sustainably sourced seafood” with which to prepare meals like salmon and dukkah-spiced vegetables, or creamy fusilli bucata pasta with fried rosemary. Needless to say, no farm-fresh seasonal produce for you, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients. Or any produce at all, for that matter. How to inexpensively deliver these boxes only Jeff Bezos knows.
Food stamps produce $1.84 in gross domestic product for every $1 spent, according to a study by the George W. Bush administration. And they have always benefited not just the hungry but the farmers who feed us all. It’s that second part of the equation that worries Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, and his House counterpart, Texas Rep. Michael Conaway.
The White House budget also chops the food bill by cutting $58 billion from farm and insurance subsidies over 10 years. And it’s to those cuts that Roberts and Conaway responded in a joint statement. “We are committed to maintaining a strong safety net,” they said, “for agricultural producers during these times of low prices and uncertain markets and continuing to improve our nation’s nutrition programs.”
Where that leaves the bad idea of replacing half of all cash assistance with care packages is impossible to say. “This is a messaging document,” Mulvaney reminded us. But with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Section 8 housing subsidies and support to displaced factory workers all pointing in the same direction, that message could not be clearer.