Replacing food stamps with boxes

I generally avoid political posts on this blog. I hope my ones of readers will forgive me this rare indulgence. And at the end, I’ll turn it into a technology post, so maybe it’s okay. At any rate, the Trump administration included a proposal to revamp the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the recent budget proposal. Roughly half of SNAP funding would go toward providing boxes of groceries to recipients.

The administration called it a “Blue Apron-style program”. It sounds like a good idea on the surface. I was surprised by this, since I’m inclined to distrust anything coming from this White House. But what seems like a good idea on first blush doesn’t always hold up to deeper scrutiny. The proposal falls apart in a few critical ways:

  • No fresh produce. Fresh produce makes it more expensive and the goal is ostensibly to save money. But providing healthier food can lead to indirect savings by reducing healthcare costs and increasing productivity.
  • No choice. From what I’ve read about the program, it would be difficult or impossible for recipients to select what food they receive. Food allergies? Too bad! Your kids won’t eat a particular food? Oh well. Don’t know how to cook what you’re sent? Better luck next time.
  • Big government! For a party that claims to favor small government, this is a pretty big government imposition. And while grocery shopping isn’t my idea of a good time, allowing people to select their own groceries at least gives them some degree of dignity.

It’s not clear if this is meant as a serious policy proposal or a marker to compare the actual policy proposal against. At any rate, it seems like a pretty bad idea. But it doesn’t have to be. An opt-in program that included fresh produce and the ability to select what’s in the box could be a real improvement. It might cost more, but the cost of a program can’t be the only measure of its merit.

For many low-income people, just getting to the grocery store is a challenge. If they’re in a food desert and have to rely on public transportation, going to the store can be a multi-hour ordeal. If a box of groceries arrived on their doorstep once a week, the time savings could be truly meaningful. And with more time not spent trying to get to the store, that’s time they could spend helping their kids with homework, studying for night classes, etc.

But putting aside the politics of this proposal, it seems like we’re all too quick to say “oh there’s a tech company doing this, it’s clearly the right thing to do.” Blue Apron, the leader in meal kit delivery, is trading for over 60% less than their IPO price from last year. It’s losing customers and money. It may not outlast the Trump administration. It may not be the model we want to model cost-saving efforts after.

“We made this thing and it works for us, so clearly it will work for everyone” is a mindset that the tech industry struggles to overcome. But in the meantime, this proposed change to SNAP has inspired me to increase my monthly donation to my local food bank. They let clients shop and provide education to help them make the most of what they get. It’s a better investment than piling some cans of beans into a box and calling it a day.

1 thought on “Replacing food stamps with boxes

  1. Nevermind that some folks don’t have the capability to cook items from the box.

    It’s just more assumption that poor people are poor because of moral failings and can’t be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves.

    Nevermind as was mentioned on a twitter thread that under current market and government incentives the highest calorie per dollar bang is cake mix (not sure if true but it’s gotta be close).

    Also, per food deserts, fast food places also have a high calorie per dollar count as well.

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