By Casey O’Brien
Do poor people have the right to choose the food they eat? Not necessarily, based on the Trump administration’s budget proposal for the SNAP program.
SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the program formerly known as food stamps. Until now, SNAP has operated through something called EBT cards — electronic benefit transfers — basically, debit cards that you can use on groceries.
Trump’s proposal involves halving the amount of money offered through EBT, and delivering boxes of dried foods, canned foods and cereals to SNAP recipients. As it is, SNAP can only be used on groceries or seeds to grow foods. It cannot, according to the USDA, be used on anything but food products, and it can only be used on limited foods—hot foods in grocery stores, for example, are not eligible.
But the limitations of SNAP could go a lot farther. Trump’s budget proposal includes a radical restructuring of SNAP, that, if approved by Congress, would represent one of the largest alterations to safety net programs in recent American history — and one of the most invasive.
The boxes would go to any SNAP recipient who receives more than $90 a month, which is over 80 percent. That means that most SNAP recipients would lose their right to choose the food they eat each month, instead receiving a box with “shelf-stable milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables,” according to the budget.
There would be no fresh produce in the boxes, representing yet another instance of produce being kept out of reach of America’s poor. Emily Jean Kreager, a mother from Nevada, wrote a Facebook post about receiving SNAP that has since been shared over 50,000 times.
In an interview with The Trail, she said, “It’s the politicians that collect a salary from our tax dollars telling those in poverty that we are too unintelligent or too easily swayed to abuse any sort of choice in what we do with those benefits.”
Boxes like this have long been distributed on reservations, with disastrous effects. A National Institute of Health study found that none of the boxes met even the basic health standards of Federal health guidelines. Obesity is a large issue on reservations, likely partly because of the lack of healthy options available to residents.
For recipients whose children have food allergies, the boxes could be problematic. Dried and canned foods tend to be high in preservatives like corn and soy, which are highly common allergies, and many people are also allergic to gluten and dairy.
According to the nonprofit Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), 15 million Americans have food allergies, including nearly 6 million children — the very people whom SNAP is aimed to protect.
Kreager said, “My middle son has severe allergies. Many of them cause digestive issues as well as anaphylaxis. He wouldn’t be able to eat anything these boxes are promoting besides canned veggies, beans and possibly the canned meats.” Many people also have restrictions on what they can eat because of religious reasons or because they are vegetarian or vegan.
But even if you have no food restrictions at all, it’s simply fundamentally wrong to remove the autonomy of someone’s right to choose the food they eat simply because they are poor. Nell Scoggins, a Puget Sound alum who has been a recipient of SNAP, said, “Food is so important, not just for sustenance, but emotionally and culturally, and it’s arrogant and disrespectful to think that the state can do a better job of feeding us than we can.”
Food is a human right, and the recipients of the SNAP program, most of whom are working Americans, deserve that right. “I would liken this [proposal] to rations more than anything else because we are removing the choice from the individual,” Kreager said. I think we can do better than rations for America’s poor, and I hope you do, too.