Last week, the Trump administration proposed an overhaul to the food stamps program so miserly that it made Scrooge’s aversion to the poor seem positively cuddly. Currently, food stamp recipients have their monthly benefit deposited on an EBT card that functions as a debit card, but with restrictions—for example, you can’t use it to buy prepared food like rotisserie chicken or nonfood items like vitamins. Under the Trump proposal, people who receive over $90 a month in benefits would have part of their allotment replaced by a “Harvest Box” full of delectable items like “shelf-stable” milk, peanut butter, canned meat, cereal, and other items that the government considers economically beneficial to American farmers.
The plan, marketed by director of the Office of Management Budget Mick Mulvaney as a “Blue Apron-type program,” was roundly criticized as soon as it was announced—and for good reason. A program like this would present a logistical nightmare and require the creation of a whole new shipping infrastructure so that SNAP recipients wouldn’t be left without food if, say their package was delayed or stolen. (I can only assume that a government known for its highly-accurate and timely postal service would be up to the task.) It’s also an extraordinarily cruel move—it both further curtails SNAP recipients’ choice and publicizes their financial situation to their neighbors by leaving a Harvest Box on their doorstep. At core, this proposal reveals a fundamental distrust of poor people and their ability to make rational decisions about their own groceries—a distrust that isn’t limited to just Trump and his ilk.
In particular, the administration’s comparison of the Harvest Boxes to Blue Apron—and the media’s continued subsequent reiteration of the comparison—is worth examining. To begin, the only thing Trump’s Harvest Boxes have in common with Blue Apron is that it’s food that comes in a box: As currently detailed, the Harvest Boxes would contain no fresh fruit or vegetables nor would the food come in easy-to-cook pre-portioned recipes.
Secondly, the analogy assumes that the Blue Apron program and kit programs like it are themselves responsible, rational systems. But even for the rich, they don’t make economic sense. Blue Apron is extraordinarily expensive for the amount of food you receive. For a four-person family, four meals a week cost a little under $150. If you’re eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that plan leaves you on your own for another 24 meals during the week—meaning you’ve already spent $150 and still need to shop or eat out for the vast majority of the meals you’re consuming. Meal kit programs like BA are also terrible for the environment. But hey, those little baggies for scallions are pretty dang cute, aren’t they?
Despite the fact that meal kit programs are really just a new and expensive way to avoid grocery shopping, the fact that people who use them aren’t scrutinized for their objectively frivolous decisions points to the unfair ways in which we conceptualize food, poverty, and morality. Every few months we’re subjected to some variant of the outraged “They’re buying steak and lobster with food stamps!” To which anyone with a heart or a sense of self that isn’t predicated on the misery of others should say, “So what?” The outrage cycle that depends on interrogating what poor people are eating relies on the notion that the poor deserve to be miserable. In America, you’re only allowed to waste your money on individual packets of hoisin sauce or the nutritionally dubious food that we all love and adore if you’re rich.
When we propose to take away poor people’s choices over their own diet, what we’re really saying is that they don’t deserve to choose how to spend their money—that by having the audacity to be poor, they have lost their right to autonomy, and every single one of their decisions is available for investigation by their neighbors or pundits. They shouldn’t be allowed to take the “easy way out” and buy a rotisserie chicken or sushi from Whole Foods—in fact why are they even shopping at Whole Foods? Wholesale beans and rice will suffice. What these policy moves indicate is a deeply-rooted assumption that poverty is a moral failure and deserves to be punished with a life devoid of the minor joys of Doritos. Because America is the land of opportunity, anyone who is poor must be poor due to some choice they made in life—meaning that they obviously can’t be trusted to make any others. That’s the only possible reason that replacing EBT with a Harvest Box of canned meat sounds like a fair thing to do.
Ultimately even Trump administration officials admit that the proposal is largely a troll. According to the New York Times, the draconian policy—a version of which is already in use on indigenous reservations—was meant to signal that the administration “is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs.” These cuts include “imposing strict new work requirements on recipients” so that fewer people will qualify. Because what’s more humane than restricting the privilege of eating to those who have a job?