by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-assistance

Mar 1 2018

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations: A prototype for the Harvest Box? Not exactly.

Last week I discussed my skepticism about the Trump Administration’s plan to replace some SNAP benefits with boxes of 100% American-grown commodities.

NPR’s The Salt is skeptical for a different reason: the experience of Native Americans with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

Since 1977, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bought nonperishable foods to distribute on Indian reservations and nearby rural areas as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The program was designed as an alternative to SNAP for low-income Native Americans living in remote areas without easy access to grocery stores. The food boxes delivered were filled with canned, shelf-stable foods like peanut butter, canned meats and vegetables, powdered eggs and milk.

It’s consequences?  A high prevalence of overweight and type-2 diabetes on Indian researvations.  As The Salt quotes:

“There’s even a name for it – it’s called ‘commod bod.’ That’s what we call it because it makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods.”

As it happens, I was in Albuquerque last week speaking at the Native American Healthy Beverage Summit sponsored by the Notah Begay III Foundation (I got to meet Notah Begay III when he introduced my talk).

I asked everyone I could about experiences with FDPIR.  Those who grew up in households participating in the program cited several issues:

  • Culturally inappropriate
  • Poor quality
  • Induced dependency
  • Undermined traditional diets
  • Part of barter/trade economy (unwanted items were bartered, traded, sold, or fed to pets)

Justin Huenemann, the CEO of the Foundation, took me to an FDPIR distribution center on a reservation near Bernalillo.

This was a big surprise.  It was clean, well stocked with fresh produce, frozen meats and fish (bison, salmon), and canned and packaged foods, all of them reasonably healthy.  Ordered items are delivered by truck to people who cannot come into the center.

The USDA has worked hard to improve the program (see fact sheets and evaluations).  Participants can choose from a long list of eligible foods.

But: the program serves only about 90,000 participants at a cost of $151 million in 2017.  Scaling it up to 40 million SNAP participants—and nearly $70 billion in benefits, seems unlikely.  Even scaling it up to the 16.7 million households promised by USDA seems iffy.

In any case FDPIR is NOT the prototype for the Harvest Box.

The prototype is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for low-income elderly.  This program, serving 600,000 seniors with a $236 million budget in 2017, offers a more limited selection of food options, none fresh.  It distributes the boxes through food banks and other nonprofits who then do the actual deliveries.  CSFP raises many if not all of the issues mentioned by my informants.

I still think this is a smokescreen to distract attention from budget cuts to SNAP but I was grateful for the opportunity to see the FDPIR in action.  The quality of the foods looked pretty good to me—an oasis in a area where healthy foods are not readily available.

Feb 20 2018

Trump’s “Blue Apron” plan for SNAP: real or a smokescreen?

I vote for smokescreen.

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the FY 2019 Budget announced last week.  In this administration’s usual Orwell-speak:

The Budget proposes a bold new approach to administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that combines traditional SNAP benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies. The Budget expands on previous SNAP proposals to strengthen expec­tations for work among able-bodied adults, pre­serves benefits for those most in need….

Translation: work requirements and budget cuts.  These are emphasized in the FY 2019 Budget Addendum.  This proposes a $17 billion cut in funding ($213 billion over the next decade).  In more Orwell-speak, it is

designed to improve nutrition and target benefits to those who need them while ensuring careful stewardship of taxpayers’ money. This  suite of proposals includes a new approach to nutrition assistance that combines retail-based SNAP benefits with a package of nutritious, 100 percent American-grown food. The Budget also encourages States to innovate in helping participants move to self-sufficiency and improving employment outcomes.

This language comes directly from USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s Big Idea: America’s Harvest Box, specified as containing:

Shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.

The box would account for roughly half the benefits; the other half would come from using EBT cards, as in the past.

What got all the attention was a statement from White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, as reported in the Washington Post:

What we do is propose that for folks who are on food stamps, part — not all, part — of their benefits come in the actual sort of, and I don’t want to steal somebody’s copyright, but a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash,” Mulvaney said. “It lowers the cost to us because we can buy [at wholesale prices] whereas they have to buy it at retail. It also makes sure they’re getting nutritious food. So we’re pretty excited about that.

Blue Apron, in case you haven’t been keeping up with this, is a meal-delivery service that has had some fiscal problems lately.

The budget plan includes some “add-back” requests for additional funds for special purposes.  One such request is for $30 million to test whether the Harvest Box plan works.

Under this proposal grants would be made to a small number of states to design, implement, and evaluate the provision of a package of USDA Foods in combination with the traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) electronic benefits used at approved retailers. This supports early implementation and evaluation of the related 2019 Budget proposal, which calls for this program structure nationwide and is estimated to save over $12 billion in 2019, and $129 billion over ten years. These grants would provide important policy and administrative lessons to inform efficient and effective nationwide implementation.

What are we to make of all this?  My favorite reaction comes from Politico: “Trump’s Food Stamp Idea Is Like Blue Apron Had a Socialist Hangover.”

It is hardly pro-market to displace the private sector and build a parallel, state-run distribution system, no matter how many times you name-check Blue Apron. This is the sort of thing you find in countries still recovering from socialist hangovers…No, the “Harvest Box” approach to hunger policy makes sense only in the context of hunger politics. And hunger politics have always been as much about the welfare of agribusiness as about the welfare of the poor…. It is generally more expensive than either buying food locally and distributing it or simply giving the recipients cash or vouchers to purchase their own food. Rigorous experimental testing has shown that it does not even produce systematically better nutritional outcomes than giving out money.

I particularly enjoyed Andy Fisher’s comments.  Fisher is author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups (see my Weekend Reading post on this book).  “Comrade Trump, he says, might just be on to something.”  SNAP, he points out,

is an accomplice to our need for cheap food with the accompanying externalities caused to public health. It reinforces the ills of the marketplace rather than seeks to transform them.”

His suggestion?  Nationalize the grocery industry.

The NY Times pointed out that even Trump administration officials don’t think this is a serious proposal:

administration officials on Tuesday admitted that the food-box plan…had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon.  Instead, the idea…was a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at outraging liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party working on the latest version of the farm bill.  The move, they said, was intended to lay down a marker that the administration is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs that will be achieved, in part, by imposing strict new work requirements on recipients.

Let’s be clear what this about: Cuts to SNAP.  As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analyzes the situation, the plan intends to cut SNAP benefits as well as:

  • Expand government bureaucracy
  • Shift costs to states and nonprofits
  • Increase costs for participants
  • Restrict access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Increase stigma for low-income households
  • Negatively impact retailers

Let me add a couple of other points:

The bottom line:  pay attention to the budget cuts.

May 11 2017

USDA’s fascinating food-and-agriculture charts

USDA researchers produce lots of data and sometimes summarize it all in handy charts.

Here are three examples:

  1.  Who makes money from food?  Food services—34.4 cents on every dollar.  Farmers?  8.6 cents on average.


2.  How sweet is the food supply?  Less than it was in 2000 but more than in 1990.  Most of this can be explained by the decline in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.


3.  What happening with food assistance?  The peak in federal spending for all of the programs came a few years ago, but the amounts are now declining.    SNAP is the big one—about $75 billion last year.

Ag policy in snapshots.  More to come.

Apr 21 2017

Weekend reading: Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger

Andrew Fisher.  Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups.  MIT Press, 2017.


This book has a big theme, and I was happy to do a blurb for it:

If you don’t understand why anti-hunger groups hardly ever advocate for higher wages or public health nutrition measures for low-income Americans, see Andy Fisher’s analysis: they owe too much to their food-company donors.  Big Hunger is a call to action, one well worth heeding.

Here’s his interview today in Civil Eats.

Sep 8 2016

Good news: U.S. Household food security improves!

The USDA has just released its annual summary of statistics on national food insecurity, with these encouraging results.

Both total and very low food security have declined since 2014 and are heading back to the lower levels observed in the early 2000s.

The USDA defines food insecurity as not having enough resources to provide food for family members.

The new data show:

  • Households considered food insecure = 12.7%
  • Households considered severely food insecure = 5%
  • Households with children who are food insecure = 7.8%
  • Food insecurity is higher in households headed by single parents, especially those who are Black or Hispanic
  • Food insecurity is higher in some states (e.g., Mississippi = 20.8%) than others (e.g., North Dakota = 8.5%)
  • Food-insecure households participating in federal food assistance programs = 59%

These figures are better than last year’s, but still need improving.

The bottom line: federal food assistance programs do not do enough to alleviate food insecurity, even among households enrolled in them.

Jul 18 2016

City Voices: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy

I am a member of the New York Academy of Medicine and am happy to say that its Institute for Urban Health has just published a terrific new report in its City Voices: New Yorkers on Health series.

This one, published in June, is called “Food and Nutrition: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy.”


It is utterly remarkable and, in my experience, highly unusual.  The authors actually asked low-income community residents in Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens what they think about their diets, risks for chronic disease, and challenges to eating healthfully.

If you care whether people of low income have financial and physical access to decent food, this report is essential reading.

Food advocates: If you are looking for something useful to do, read this report.  It makes the needs clear and also suggests where interventions might best be targeted.

I’m always complaining that public health advocates need to ask people in communities what they think.  These authors did that, and look how useful it is!

Jul 14 2016

How to reduce SNAP caseloads? Easy. Just set a 3-month limit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has just released an analysis of the recent decline in SNAP caseloads.

Bigger SNAP Declines in States Newly Imposing Time Limits

Some SNAP participants may be finding jobs along with an improving economy and going off the rolls.  Good for them.

But a more likely reason is that states like Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and Arkansas instituted a 3-month time limit in January.  The limit appleis to “unemployed childless adults without disabilities.”

Other states are doing this too.

If you want your state to reduce its SNAP expenditures, here’s one way to do that.

And if there aren’t jobs?  What are poor people supposed to do?

May 19 2016

SNAP politics: strange bedfellows

Wouldn’t it be useful if stores that accept SNAP benefits stocked some other real—as opposed to packaged—foods in addition to the apples, oranges, and bananas most of them now seem to carry (witness Walgreens)?

Congress thought so when it passed the 2014 farm bill.  This intended

to expand or preserve the availability of staple foods in underserved areas with moderate- and low income populations by maintaining or increasing the number of retail outlets that offer an assortment of perishable food and staple food items, as determined by the Secretary, in those areas.

In response, USDA proposed new regulations to improve what SNAP retailers had in stock.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to develop regulations to ensure that stores that accept SNAP offer a broader variety of healthy food choices. The stocking provisions in the proposed rule would require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options so that recipients have access to more healthy food choices. SNAP retailers would be required to offer seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups. The staple foods groups are dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. In addition, the proposal calls for retailers to stock at least six units within each variety, leading to a total of at least 168 required food items per store.

Guess what?  Some retailers don’t like this idea.

What to do when you don’t like food regulations?  Go straight to Congress.

Now the House agriculture committee is complaining to USDA about the rule.  It says that USDA’s estimate of the cost per store ($140) is wrong.  Retailers say it will cost them $5000 per month to implement.

Who’s right?  Hence: politics.

The Congressional Black Caucus also wants the USDA to back off on this rule.  It says communities need these retailers (the quality of the foods they sell is not an issue, apparently).  Here is its letter.

Civil Eats has a good summary of the issues.

It troubles me greatly that SNAP divides advocates for the poor and advocates for health.  Don’t all of us want the recipients of federal food assistance to have access to healthful food choices?

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