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Yesterday, MNB reported that as part of the Trump administration’s new budget submission, the government is proposing that it should cut back on the distribution of food stamps and instead deliver to needy people Blue Apron-style meal kits filled with food.

Here’s how Politico framed the plan:

“The proposal, buried in the White House’s fiscal 2019 budget, would replace about half of the money most families receive via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, with what the Department of Agriculture is calling ‘America’s Harvest Box.’ That package would be made up of ‘100 percent U.S. grown and produced food’ and would include items like shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal.”

Both the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the National Grocers Association (NGA) criticized the proposal.

I commented:

I simply do not understand the thinking behind this change; it seems to me that it is the product of a bunch of politicians who probably never have been on food stamps and probably have never used a meal kit. It sounds good as a talking point, but makes no sense.

Implementation would be a nightmare. Do these guys really want to create a new government program that has to send out meal kits on a regular basis to more than 16 million households? Plus, they’d have to customize the kits for families with food allergies.

I’m not sure what is conservative about this - it would create an enormous infrastructure where none currently exists. Unless, of course, the goal really is to end the food stamp program and then say that the meal kit program really isn’t workable, which would leave low income people with no food assistance at all.

MNB reader Charlie Moore wrote:

FMI and NGA’s responses are quite correct, but miss an important part of the picture. There is a very legitimate concern that too many food stamp dollars are poorly spent on unhealthy foods or not on food at all. The food box or ‘meal kit’ option controls that expenditure, at least in theory. (However, what a boondoggle for the lobbyists on what’s actually chosen for the box!)

The public health costs of obesity and nutrition insecurity dwarf the actual costs of the SNAP program many fold. So, one of the objectives of the meal box concept is legitimate.

However, as you and FMI and NGA point out, where the USDA goes badly wrong is the actual economics of such an operation. It’s almost as if USDA came up with this idea as Blue Apron was going public to great initial fanfare, and never adjusted thereafter to the recognition that the price per serving was going to be inherently much higher than a meal serving when shopped through the grocery store.

Moreover, the notion that the same food fits every family ignores the difference in various food allergies and nutritional issues, as well as cultural and religious differences. The food choices need to be different based upon each family’s unique set of needs. Providing varieties of boxes explodes the logistical costs, just as they do for commercial meal kits.

By comparison, a user of DinnerTime’s meal planning and sale-smart grocery shopping app achieves easy to make, personalized meals at an average cost of $3 per serving, every bit as delicious as any Blue Apron meal. The meal recommendations take advantage of 'what’s on sale this week’ at the user’s chosen grocer and builds a SKU specific shopping list that advantages food items and recipes that fit the user’s profile. Some users opt for an average cost of $2 or less and attain that budget goal while eating healthier food at the same time.

If the USDA actually wanted to control the health quality of the foods of SNAP recipients, they would adapt DinnerTime or comparable AI system, to provide healthy meal recommendations unique to each family and using SNAP approved food items to build such meals at an affordable cost. The only requirement on participating retailers would be to digitally engage with such system and to digitally receive SNAP dollars for the purchases.

Enterprising grocers could also use such a system to provide drop-off delivery at community centers, neighborhood schools, and senior living centers in food desert areas. DinnerTime is piloting such a program in 2018, with full SNAP integration.

This sort of digitally driven innovation should be an opt-in program at first and only with time be required for SNAP participation, but it truly is the answer to making sure the tax dollars spent towards SNAP actually result in healthy nutrition for families in need.

Probably worth pointing out that Charlie Moore is a co-founder of DinnerTime.

Another MNB reader wrote:

What wasn’t mentioned in the food box contents is soda, cookies, potato chips, candy, donuts, Red Bull, Twinkies, etc. If you have ever stood in line behind a SNAP card user ( not uncommon here in Arizona) , you know those items fill up their grocery cart. If they are also using WIC, you can include chocolate milk and pre sweetened cereals. I agree that the Ag Dept saving calculations seem a bit far fetched. But if the tax payer is giving them free food, it should be items that help these folks stay healthy so they can get back into the work force or at least not suffer from diabetes.

And MNB reader Mary Schroeder wrote:

Sorry, this is not a meal kit.  It’s a poorly disguised clean-out-the-pantry food plan.  Meal kits provide fresh food, not canned meats loaded with preservatives.  The problems are substantial and, given Washington, not addressed at all.  The whole idea is frightening and so very sad.

MNB reader Norm Myhr wrote:

This idea should be sent to the government’s bad idea scrap pile. Maybe someone out there can name anything the government can do efficiently and at a lower cost, than a for profit company. I can’t think of one.

From another reader:

You're absolutely right.  Forcing taxpayers to provide stay-at-home convenience on top of free food is absurd.  The government ought to study the long-established and -successful Mormon model:  Central warehouses where beneficiaries can go to pick up their own freebies.

And from another:

I’m guessing these politicians don’t pay much attention at mealtime, or don’t spend much time with friends and family around the dinner table.  From what I’ve heard (haven’t checked into it myself, so I may be misinformed), meal kit companies don’t offer a whole lot in specialized diets.  I don’t think a meal-kit company would want to try and customize a kit for my next get together.  We’d need a diabetic low-carb version; allergy-free versions which would include no milk, no egg, no legumes, no nuts, and no artificial additives, oh, and one no pork products; a vegetarian version; a paleo version; and a couple of gluten-free versions.

And you have to factor in the meal requirements for religious purposes.  And you can’t discriminate against ethnic food preferences.  And then you have plain, ol’ food likes and dislikes.  I think the push back could be tremendous.

Sounds to me like a few politicians may have bought a fair amount of stock in a meal-kit company or two.

And another:

The first problem (of many) with the food stamp alternative proposal is a box of shelf-stable “canned fruit, vegetables, and meat” is in no way Blue Apron-like. It strikes me as extremely unhealthy, as this stuff will all be heavily processed. Other problems range from logistics to cost to ethics.

All we need now is Mick Mulvaney to say “Let them eat (shelf stable) cake”.

One more MNB reader wrote:

Another issue with the food box proposal is the loss of income to small farmers who survive by selling at farmers markets.  The ability to use EBT cards to purchase fresh, locally produced produce has been a winner for consumers, farmers, the local economy, and keeping farmland in production.

These are all very interesting emails. I have a couple of follow-up observations.

First of all, I’m not surprised when people say that food stamp users eat crappy food on the public dime, and that this would solve that problem.

I’m not sure that’s entirely true. As one of the MNB readers suggested, lobbyists from all sorts of companies would line up to have their products included in the boxes, and that would not necessarily lead to healthier diets.

I also think it is possible that folks are painting with too broad a brush about what food stamp recipients buy. There was a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study about a year ago concluding that 40 cents of every food stamp dollar are spent on basics such as meat, produce, eggs and bread, 40 cents are spent on “cereal, prepared foods, dairy products, rice and beans,” and the remaining 20 cents on junk food such as sweetened drinks and foods.

Are there some folks who abuse the stamps and buy nothing but crap? Sure. But I’d be willing to bet that a lot more people are responsible about what they buy than those who are irresponsible.

It also isn’t a binary choice. I’ve written here before that I’d have no problem with adjusting the food stamp program so that they could be used only for healthy foods, and not for candy and soda. But I also think that it is better public policy to have people who need assistance doing their own shopping at local stores, rather than getting a box prepared by some bureaucrat.

There was an irony, considering the events that took place in Florida yesterday, that I got the following email from an MNB reader:

I wanted to bring up a topic that hasn’t gotten as much press as I was expecting: the bankruptcy filing of 202 year-old Remington Arms.

A two-century history couldn’t save Remington from a swift demise.  The Ilion, NY factory where Remington was founded underwent massive changes as the modern Bushmaster AR line was added to the traditional hunting rifles and shotguns Remington had previously focused on.  Soon after that, the bulk of manufacturing was moved out of Ilion, New York to Huntsville, Alabama … it was all about cost savings through conglomeration.  Customers noticed an immediate drop in quality and craftsmanship in not just Remington, but also Marlin, Bushmaster and other brands under the Cerberus umbrella.

This strikes me as another tragic example of the economic consequences when rapid, immediate gains are chased at the expense of long-term financial stability.

Your point about relevance is legitimate.

As I’ve noted here before, while I was not raised in what these days is referred to as a “gun culture,” I try to have an open mind about the applicability and boundaries of the Second Amendment.

But …

It is hard for me to give a damn right now about the inability of a gun company to stay in business. I have a wife and daughter who work in schools, and I’m tired of reading about how such places are being turned into killing fields.
KC's View: