Health

On Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed annual budget, which is a vision for what he wants to see spent and not spent this year. One major change would be to federal funding for food for low-income Americans, which comes through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Around 650,000 people in Kentucky get this federal assistance to buy food, and according to data from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 68 percent of SNAP recipients are in families with children, 38 percent live in a family with an elderly or disabled person and over a third are in a household where at least one person works.

Right now, SNAP money is loaded onto a debit card. But under Trump’s proposal — which would only affect people getting more than $90 in monthly assistance — only half of a family’s SNAP money would go onto the debit card. Instead, they’d get a box of food in the mail, kind of like a meal delivery service.

According to Politico, that’s what Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney compared it to, calling it a “Blue Apron-type program.”

But unlike a meal delivery service where consumers pick what they eat, the government would pick the things in the box, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has dubbed “America’s Harvest Box.” The budget cites examples like cereal, canned milk, canned fruit, peanut butter, canned meat.  USDA officials declined a request to explain the program further.

Renee Bryant, the director of the individual and family assistance center at Fern Creek Highview United Ministries, said there are a few red flags regarding the possible policy.

She said around 65 percent of the people that come to her food pantry get SNAP benefits. That’s because on average, food from SNAP is used up by the third week of the month. Right now, those SNAP funds allow people to buy fresh meat and produce to supplement the food pantry stock.

“This [box] doesn’t allow for fresh meats or vegetables, basically it sounds like everything in the box sounds like it would be processed,” Bryant said. “You’re choosing for them. They don’t get the choice anymore.”

James Ziliak, a professor in microeconomics and expert on SNAP at the University of Kentucky, said the proposed program would cost much more to run. The government would have to have a system to track food allergies and even preferences, or otherwise risk a lot of food being thrown out.

“There would be a mess of increase in administrative cost and burden for running the program, and would likely to led to substantial increase in food waste in this country,” Ziliak said. “People would be given foods that they don’t necessarily want. The one great success of the SNAP program is that it retains some semblance of consumer sovereignty.”

And then there’s the issue of how much shipping all these boxes would cost. The budget does not spell out how that would be paid for, or who would pay for it. Bryant with Fern Creek Highview Ministries said that’s a concern.

“I can’t imagine the shipping costs on top of all that,” Bryant said. “I mailed a package to my father the other day and it was $11 — and the thing wasn’t even 12 by 12 inches and it wasn’t that heavy.”

USDA said the program would save more than $129 billion — but noted that doesn’t include delivery costs.

The White House budget also contains other proposed changes to the SNAP program. Currently in most Kentucky counties, ‘able-bodied’ adults between 19 and 49 who are ‘able-bodied’ and don’t have a dependent are only able to receive SNAP benefits for three months in a three year period, unless they work more than 80 hours a month.

The budget would change that age limit, placing those restrictions on people up to age 62.

In addition, people receiving Supplemental Security Income because of a disability are now automatically enrolled in SNAP. Under the proposal, those people would have to separately apply for SNAP, which Ziliak said would cause a decrease in enrollment.

The White House budget is usually dead on arrival, no matter what administration is in office. That’s because the Senate and the House already have their own working budgets in the works. But this summer, SNAP is up for reauthorization. And now that Trump officials have laid out that this mailed food box is one of the changes they’d like to see, that’s when it could become a reality.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.