The Secret Ingredient in Trump’s Food Stamp Plan

by Tracey Deutsch

Trump’s proposal for a “harvest box” for SNAP recipients would be a massive shift in federal food assistance.  For starters, these boxes would dramatically reduce individuals’ ability to buy food: households would receive just over half the cash of what they are entitled to.  They’d receive the remainder in the form of “shelf-stable” foods. And in the process, recipients would lose the ability to purchase the kind of ingredients (fresh vegetables, herbs) that are important in producing meals (as opposed to just packaged goods).

As many have argued, the boxes are unwelcome by almost everyone involved in food distribution or hunger efforts.  Distribution is mind-bogglingly impractical and the proposal has only shallow political support.  It’s unlikely that they’d actually save the government money, and they are unlikely to be adopted anytime soon.  It’s entirely possible that, as many have argued, they were only proposed as a political ploy—to justify cutting the budget for food support.

And yet . . . the budget could be cut in a number of ways.  Why are these boxes the vehicles for the cut? And why does their specter haunt the blogosphere? These boxes have captured imaginations. Why?

To understand their hold, we need to look at their “secret ingredient”—  centralized control over food—and at its history. To say that these boxes are centralized is a wonky, somewhat structuralist, analysis. What it means is that the contents of the food boxes are determined by the USDA.  States would be responsible only for delivering food, with the vague suggestion that they use preexisting networks of food banks and food shelves. And local groups, let alone individuals, would have no say in the contents. This is no accident and it’s not just about saving money.

Thinking about the history of food politics can help explain why that this level is centralized control is such a chilling innovation. As an historian, I try not to say that something has never happened before. But this comes awfully close to never having happened before.  While the federal government has sometimes exerted control over particular foods (e.g., pasteurized milk), and while things like nutrition guidelines and subsidies give officials influence in what gets sold and served (e.g. in school lunches) and while the government has rationed certain foods during wartime, both this scale of intervention, and also this kind of intervention are very new. The federal government just doesn’t send specific food to peoples’ homes and expect it to be a major part of their diet.

These are banal boxes.  They consist of jars of peanut butter and bags of beans. But banality, as we’ve learned, can be evil.

Food has long been a powerful tool of domination, wielded with particular efficacy in this country against people of color and poor white people.  The closest version of these boxes are the “commodity boxes” distributed on Native American reservations, widely credited with remarkable levels of health problems in these communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, local administrators distributed “food stamps” and policed access to them, often using food to ensure families’ compliance with racist policies and local white supremacist groups, and to maintain low-wage, hungry, workforce. Long before that, before food stamps even existed, slaveowners and officials kept indigenous and enslaved people hungry—both by limiting the food they provided (in spite of promises and treaties) and through a web of land policies that made it difficult for people to forage, hunt, or farm their own food.  Hunger threatened survival and reinforced the abject condition of enslavement and indigeneity. Finally, we need to remember the long history of poor people, of all races, being told that they are irresponsible, ignorant, and unable to choose the right foods or diets for themselves.

There’s nothing innocent about these boxes.  They are part of a long tradition of food politics as a tool of domination. 

The boxes promise social and cultural damage, in addition to bodily health.  Food is important to ethnic, racial, and religious identity—and a tool for undoing these. Centralizing food doesn’t just reduce individual choice.  It reduces grassroots, community, group, collective formations.   Family dinners, group celebrations, community and group potlucks, religious observance—this proposal is a statement that poor folks and the stores that serve them shouldn’t be concerned with any of that.

To be clear, I do not mean that such identities would be erased, nor even that “taste” would disappear.  Recipients will surely remake these items. But the work of being poor would increase. And the meanings of American identity would narrow.  We are all impoverished and we are all made precarious by the notion that these are “America’s”  harvest boxes.

When federal authorities, driven by activists, re-energized SNAP (then food stamps) in the 1960s and 1970s, the result was a more expanded, and more equitable program (if not a fully equitable one).  This plan up-ends that possibility. It keeps the central authority that has been part of food support for decades, but marries it to older, more corrupting, programs. Under this proposal, just as under many other proposals of this administration, shaming, racism, classism, and sexism are made part of “American” identity, and are now be enforced by federal agencies.  The fortunes of a few business (particularly large agribusiness) would rise.” Small retailers?  Farmers who have steered clear of large lobbying groups? Recipients?  Well, the logic is, they’d be reminded of their lack of status with every bite. What gets fed? Division and inequity.

The boxes are imaginary (at least for now). But to understand the danger of these boxes, we need to remember that food is not just another piece of the federal budget.  We need to see the history of efforts to use food to make, and unmake, social worlds.