This week, the Trump administration rolled out a proposal that would dramatically alter the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It would take away half of recipients’ SNAP benefit, which can currently be used by low-income families to buy groceries at 260,000 retailers around the country, and replace it with a monthly box of prepackaged food, chosen by the government.
The administration is calling it “America’s Harvest Box”—an Orwellian name for a program that will be replacing fresh fruits and vegetables with canned and packaged alternatives. The phrase that has dominated the headlines, however, came from Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney, who memorably described it as “a Blue Apron–type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash.”
It sounds like a cruel and cynical joke: like Blue Apron, but for desperate poverty.
As a founding investor of Blue Apron, and someone who has made ending poverty the focus of my life, I feel compelled to weigh in. Let’s be clear: There is nothing “Blue Apron–like” about these Trump Boxes. In fact, sending people boxes of canned goods and starches is quite literally the opposite of Blue Apron. The whole idea behind Blue Apron is to deliver a meal kit of ready-to-cook fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables so that families can cook and eat healthy together. Trump Boxes would include no fresh produce or meat—items which SNAP recipients can currently get at their local grocery store.
Similarly, SNAP works well in part because it enables individuals to buy food that’s fitted to their personal health needs, dietary restrictions, and tastes. Trump Boxes, on the other hand, seem to have been created with the idea that everyone would be better off with a daily diet of fake milk, canned foods, and peanut butter. They sound like rations for prison inmates, not empowerment for low-income Americans who are working hard for wages that are too low.
This is exactly the kind of cruelty we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration, as this proposal would slash the safety net for millions of struggling families, treating people like numbers in a spreadsheet instead of human beings. But in another sense, this is a puzzling move for a Republican: taking choices out of the hands of consumers, and instead letting government bureaucrats decide what American families get to eat.
This is hardly hyperbolic language. In a very real sense, Trump’s “America’s Harvest Box” program amounts to replacing SNAP’s free-market model with one of centralized planning. What an unexpected turn for a party that spent eight years howling with rage about a first lady who just wanted school lunches to include more vegetables.
Now consider the problems of scale and logistics. Under the plan put forward this week, Trump Boxes would need to be delivered to 16 million American households every month. By comparison, even Blue Apron, the largest meal-kit delivery company in the United States, serves about 1 million families across the country. Under Trump’s plan, much of the costs of shipping would be passed along to the states, further eroding the portion of the program’s budget that actually reaches and benefits recipients.
The closer you look, the more it appears that Trump’s “America’s Harvest Box” is a solution in search of a problem. The reality is, SNAP isn’t broken. In fact, it’s one of the most effective programs we have for fighting poverty, precisely because it puts choice—and, with it, basic human dignity—in the hands of the recipient.
SNAP has flaws to be sure, but an overabundance of fresh foods going to low-income families was not one of them. Nor was wasteful overspending on food. The average amount a person receives monthly to spend on food via the SNAP program is $126 or about $1.40 per meal—hardly a luxurious budget.
Trump Boxes would also decimate local communities and exacerbate the problem of food deserts in low-income areas, particularly communities of color. About $65 billion annually is spent via the SNAP program at local food stores throughout America, allowing 260,000 authorized retailers to hire more people, who have more money to spend at local businesses. That virtuous cycle is called an economic-multiplier effect, and Moody’s estimates that every dollar of SNAP funds creates about $1.70 of economic activity.
What makes this dramatic cut to SNAP benefits even more tragic and destructive is that this is precisely the time we need to be increasing funding for the program. Unemployment is near a record low, and yet half of Americans today couldn’t afford to cover a $400 surprise expense. Nearly half of kids in this country live in or near poverty.
Like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which I helped pass and fought to expand in my native California, SNAP is an example of an effective anti-poverty program we need to be expanding in response to the growing number of people whose wages aren’t enough to pay for their basic needs.
Instead, President Trump has issued an inane call to turn the SNAP program into a centralized monopoly that would deliver boxes of peanut butter and condensed milk to the poor. It’s a bleak, dystopian parody of the social safety net, one that robs human beings of their dignity.
In other words, the Trump Box is no Blue Apron.