Should the government dictate what people on food stamps eat?

The government is suggesting a radical change to the SNAP program.
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The government is suggesting a radical change to the SNAP program.

What's happening?

In its budget request for the 2019 fiscal year, the Trump administration proposed significant changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly known as food stamps.

Under the proposal, households qualifying for $90 or more per month in food stamps would see half of the money they get replaced by food boxes by the federal agriculture department.

This would impact around 81 percent of SNAP recipients – about 16.4 million households.

CNBC reports that the food they would get would be grown in America and include "shelf-stable" items like juice, cereal, pasta, canned meat, beans, fruit and vegetables. It would not include any fresh produce.

What's the case the government is making for this?

It's predominantly financial, judging by Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney's appearance before the media on Thursday.

Rather than giving all of the SNAP money directly to low income households to spend on what food they like (though there are exceptions, which you can see here), Mulvaney says state governments would be able to buy the food at wholesale prices, whereas current recipients buy it at retail.

This, the government says, would end up reducing the overall cost of the SNAP program by $129 billion over the next 10 years.

It's part of wider cuts to the program that will reduce its budget by $213 billion over those years, including cutting 4 million people who are currently eligible from the program.

Mulvaney also said it would "make sure they're [food stamp receipients] getting nutritious food. So we're pretty excited about that."

What are the arguments against?

The proposal has prompted some surprise from those who say it goes against conservative "anti-big government" principles – namely the federal government dictating what kind of food people should eat.

While there has been no detail as to how the food boxes would be distributed, critics believe it would be a logistical nightmare.

Joel Berg, of Hunger Free America, told NPR that it would not only take $200 billion worth of food from low-income Americans, it would do so "while increasing bureaucracy and reducing choices."

"They think a bureaucrat in D.C. is better at picking out what your family needs than you are?" he said, saying the current "free market model" makes SNAP more efficient.

Jim Weill, of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, said the change woukd "stigmatize people" when they go to pick up their food boxes, whereas now they can use their EBT cards to pay for food at participating grocery stores, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The Tribune also notes the move is "likely to enrage food retailers" including Walmart, Target and Aldi, which stand to lose billions if food stamp benefits are cut.

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