BILLINGS – The Trump administration wants to deliver food directly to recipients of SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, instead of full cash payments.
The proposed change could affect about one in 10 Montanans, or 120,000 statewide. Two-thirds are children, seniors and individuals with disabilities.
The administration says the plan would save money and cut back fraud, but managers of local food banks worry the new plan would not provide food to those who need it.
Here’s how the plan would work:
Instead of receiving all their food stamp funds, households would get a box of food that the government describes as nutritious and 100 percent grown and produced in the U.S. The so-called USDA America’s Harvest Box would contain items such as shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables. The box would be valued at about half of the SNAP recipient’s monthly benefit. The remainder of their benefits would be given to them on electronic benefit cards, as before.
The administration didn’t detail exactly how families would receive the food boxes, saying states could distribute them through existing infrastructure, partnerships or directly to residences through delivery services.
“USDA America’s Harvest Box is a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families — and all of it is homegrown by American farmers and producers,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a statement. “It maintains the same level of food value as SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] participants currently receive, provides states flexibility in administering the program, and is responsible to the taxpayers.”
The proposal would save nearly $130 billion over 10 years, improve the nutritional value of the program and reduce the potential for fraud, according to the administration.
Consumer advocates fear the food boxes would reduce choice and some families could have difficulty receiving them, especially in rural Montana.
“The idea that we’re going to get food boxes every month to SNAP households, it just doesn’t make sense,” said Lorainne Burhop, Montana Food Bank Network chief policy officer. “We need to use the infrastructure we have in place, and that infrastructure is grocery stores. It makes far more sense for individuals to be able to go to their local grocery stores, to bring those federal dollars into local economies and spend them at retailers that already exist.”
Critics of those receiving funds from SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, argue families who use it have poor eating habits. But Burhop says research shows recipients have similar shopping patterns of any other American household.
“I think there is opportunity to improve access and afford healthy food items,” said Burhop, adding work is being done to provide healthier options with programs like double SNAP dollars at farmer’s markets and SNAP-Ed. “People are doing the best they can with a really limited budget.”
SNAP benefit amounts depend on the gross income limit and the number of people within the household. A family of three gets about $376 a month, on average. They can spend it at one of 260,000 retailers that participate in the program.
Food stamps often don’t cover an entire month’s worth of food, but the program was always meant to be used as a supplement to a family’s budget.
Americans who receive food stamps can purchase a wide variety of groceries, with notable exceptions. Alcohol, tobacco, hot food, pet food, soap and paper products, household supplies or food that will be eaten in the store are not allowed.
The federal government spent just over $68 billion on SNAP last year. More than 93 percent of the money goes to benefits, which enrollees receive on a card, while the rest covers administrative expenses.
The food stamp program requires most able-bodied, childless adults to work, and in some states, parents must work as well.
Adults without minor children can only receive benefits for three months out of every 36-month period, unless they are working or participating in training programs 20 hours a week. States can waive that requirement for areas where unemployment is at least 10 percent or there is an insufficient number of jobs, as defined by the Department of Labor.
The Trump administration’s budget calls for requiring more people to work, in part by limiting states’ use of waivers.
Roughly 1.3 cents for every dollar is lost to fraud in the program, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Much of it happens when benefits are exchanged for cash or ineligible items, which typically occurs at smaller retailers.