Proposed food-stamp changes not viable, Iowa advocates say

Some argue loss in SNAP benefits and prepackaged food boxes won't solve hunger, save money

WASHINGTON — About 12 percent of Iowans benefit from the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, but many of those residents would see a portion of their benefits come in the form of a prepackaged food box or see their overall benefits decrease under a Trump administration proposal to curb the budget for the program.

The proposal — released last week — details curbing the U.S. Department of Agriculture SNAP food assistance program by more than $213 billion over the next decade. Proposed cuts would begin with more than $17 billion rolled back by 2019.

Additionally, the program would see a “bold new approach” by combining current benefits with a “food box full of American-grown food.” For the past 40 years, the Department of Agriculture has distributed benefits either as paper coupons or virtual disbursements on electronic benefit transfer cards, allowing recipients to use them as cash on food of their choice, at their own grocery store.

Under the Trump proposal, all households receiving more than $90 per month in benefits would begin receiving roughly half their benefits in the form of government-purchased, non-perishable food items. Those foods would include shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned meat, fruits and vegetables, according to USDA. The department estimates that it could supply these goods at roughly half the cost of retail, slashing the cost of SNAP while still feeding the hungry.

Each Iowan on the program gets an average of $111 a month for SNAP benefits, according to the USDA.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney described it in a Feb. 12 briefing as a “Blue Apron-type program.”

Mulvaney’s remarks raised eyebrows from some critics, who accuse the Trump administration official of drawing an unfair comparison between the food stamp program, which delivers an average of $1.37 per meal to America’s poorest, and a high-end meal kit that runs $10 per serving.

In Iowa, 381,000 residents are on SNAP, and about 70 percent of recipients are in families with children, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.



Regenea Hurte, executive director of the Iowa Hunger Coalition and the Iowa Food Bank Association, said the “voluminous” budget cuts are not viable, and prepackaged food boxes should be out of the question.

“It’s superimposing the government’s judgment on what is best for families,” Hurte said. “If you have individuals with disabilities or particular dietary needs, how do we accommodate for that?”

Linda Gorkow agreed. Gorkow is director of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program food reservoir, which buys and recovers fresh food to distribute to local food pantries.

The food bank has increased storage space for fresh foods, distributing more fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and protein in the past year. Pantries and clients have emphasized the need for nutritious foods at pantries and fewer processed foods high in sugar and sodium.

A prepackaged food box veers in the opposite direction, Gorkow said. It also could increase food waste by providing food that won’t be eaten.

“We want to keep our community strong and nourished so we can help them take that next step to help their families grow stronger,” Gorkow said. “Food is a basic necessity. We need to be thoughtful. These are humans that have come on hard times. Are we thinking punitively or are we thinking to help?”

The proposal calls for states to have more flexibility on how to implement SNAP benefits, as well as deciding how to distribute food boxes.

“I don’t see anywhere in those budget documents where it indicates how we’re going to deliver those items,” Hurte said. “Whatever savings they anticipate will be offset by the cost of delivery.”


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A change also is likely to enrage food retailers — particularly Wal-Mart, Target and Aldi — which stand to lose billions if food stamp benefits are cut, analysts say. Last week, the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association for grocery stores, condemned the food box proposal as expensive, inefficient and unlikely to generate any long-term savings.

In 2016, about $508 million was generated through the use of SNAP benefits at retail and grocery stores, according to the policy priorities report.


In addition to cutting costs, the goal of the proposal is to reduce fraud and strengthen the “expectation for work among able-bodied adults and preserving the benefits for those most in need.”

Hurte said she thinks there is a perception that SNAP fraud is more rampant than it is and that the proposal is further stigmatizing those who need food assistance.

“Fraud, I won’t say that it doesn’t happen because it does,” she said. “The majority of the people who are receiving public benefits, because the stigma attached to that is so bad, they see public benefits as a last resort. The program is doing what it’s supposed to do to help folks do what they can do to become self-sufficient.”

According to the most recent USDA data, SNAP trafficking fraud — when benefits are exchanged for cash — accounts for about 1 cent on the dollar, down from 4 cents on the dollar in 1993.

Able-bodied adults who are not working also have a three months out of three years limit on using SNAP benefits, or they must prove that they have a work exemption.

Marion resident Rita Cabello benefited from the SNAP program for about two months. Six years ago, Cabello had to move back to Iowa to care for her nephews after their parents died, leaving her position as a teacher in Mexico. The benefits allowed Cabello to feed herself and her 7- and 13-year-old nephews while she worked to get her Iowa teaching license. The process to apply was so laborious that Cabello said she didn’t bother again.


Cabello said a friend recently had taken to social media to say individuals use SNAP benefits improperly, buying unhealthy items such as frozen pizzas and soda. Prohibited items include alcohol and tobacco, medicine and vitamins, hot foods, pet food, cleaning products and household supplies.

“I got a whole $72 a month,” she said. “You can’t buy toilet paper with it and that’s absolutely necessary. The idea I was taking my $72 a month to buy junk food is ridiculous. Some of it was mac and cheese and kid-friendly food, but I tried to make sure there’s a fresh selection of vegetables.

“I understand when you’re looking for charity, you accept whatever, but the indignity of people handing you a box is too much. This war on poverty is really a war against the people that are the most vulnerable,” she said.

Products purchased through SNAP long have been a point of contention.

If concern remains about using SNAP benefits for unhealthy food, focus on more education, said state Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha.

“The issue is really about children and the elderly getting the food they need so they don’t go hungry,” Mathis said. “If we continue to focus on nutrition education and healthy lifestyles, we can solve a host of hunger issues. Food boxes are not the answer to what we’re trying to solve.”

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