The Trump administration has proposed a major shift in how benefits are distributed for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as “food stamps.”
The change would replace part of people’s monthly benefit with a food box filled with shelf-stable products such as cereals, pasta, and peanut butter.
Currently, people receive their entire benefit on a food debit card — known as an EBT card — that can be used at local supermarkets and farmers markets.
White House officials say the changes will “improve the nutritional value of the benefit provided.”
But it would also achieve another of the administration’s goals: saving money.
So, the big question is whether a food box will really improve the health of SNAP participants.
How well do SNAP participants eat?
SNAP serves about 42 million Americans, including low-income families, seniors, and people with disabilities. The average monthly benefit is $126 per person.
Under the administration’s proposal, about 81 percent of SNAP households would receive half their monthly benefit as a food box, with the rest on the EBT card.
Shipping boxed food to SNAP participants would be cheaper than letting them buy locally. This would save the government about $129 billion over the next 10 years — part of a proposed $213 billion cut to SNAP funding.
Currently, people enrolled in SNAP can use their EBT card to buy any food — healthy or “junk” — as long as it’s unprepared. So, no deli sandwiches or roast chickens.
They also can’t buy alcohol or cigarettes. Or household products such as paper towels and shampoo.
They can, however, buy seeds or plants for growing food to feed their family, which can stretch their SNAP benefits even further.
Some research has found that people enrolled in SNAP buy less healthy food compared to people of similar income who aren’t enrolled in the program.
But food insecurity advocates such as the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) disagree with these results. They’ve found that SNAP participation improves a person’s diet quality. It also reduces food insecurity, obesity, and poor general health in children.
But like most Americans, there’s certainly room for improvement in how SNAP participants eat, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only 9 percent of Americans meet the federal guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake.
Increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Chronic diseases like these cost the United States healthcare system billions of dollars each year, according to the CDC.
So it makes economic sense to help people eat healthier.
Can a box of food be healthy?
But would a food box change SNAP participants’ health?
That depends on what’s in the boxes.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls these “America’s Harvest Box,” they won’t be filled with farm-to-home fresh produce — like the kind SNAP participants can buy now at their local grocer or farmers market.
And they’ll be a far cry from the preassembled meal kits shipped to homes by Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and other trendy startups.
The USDA says that the boxes will be filled with shelf-stable products such as “milk, juice, grains, ready-to-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.”
Still, having healthy foods, even shelf-stable ones, sent to your family can potentially help you eat healthier.
So what would work?
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, said she’d like to see frozen fruits and vegetables as well as canned beans show up in a food box.
“Frozen fruit and vegetables are frozen at peak ripeness,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline, “so they can often be not only more affordable, but also more nutrient-dense options, depending on the area of the country and the season.”
“Canned beans are a good option,” she added, “because they take away the barrier of having to soak and cook.”
The closest thing to a SNAP food box is a USDA program that distributes food boxes on Native American reservations. Participants in the program can choose from more than 100 products, similar to the shelf-stable products proposed for SNAP.
Some research found that randomly selected food packages sent to the reservations were healthier than other federal food assistance and nutrition programs. But they still fell far short of the “healthiest” rating.
Not everyone agrees that food boxes are the best way to improve people’s health.
John Weidman, deputy executive director of Philadelphia-based nonprofit The Food Trust, told Healthline that he thinks food boxes are a “step in the wrong direction.”
“Packaged food often has more preservatives and other processing,” said Weidman. “We think moving away from heavily packaged and processed food is a good thing that we want to encourage.”
Is a box enough to encourage healthy eating?
Even if food boxes have the healthiest shelf-stable food, is that enough to improve health long term?
A monthly food box would ensure that there’s food on the table, but it wouldn’t address other issues that keep people from eating healthy.
People may not have pots, pans, utensils, or a working kitchen.
Or they might not know what to eat or how to cook — something that local organizations try to address.
“Many food banks have dietitians that do a wonderful job of providing guidance on how to whip up healthy meals,” said Kirkpatrick. “This can be helpful for really any population.”
Being handed food may also not change your lifelong habits, something that many programs are trying to address.
The ¡Más Fresco! (“More Fresh”) program in Southern California provides incentives for SNAP participants to buy more fruits and vegetables.
The program is a partnership of University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Center for Community Health, the USDA, and Northgate Gonzalez Market.
It’s funded by the USDA Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Grant Program.
It’s also a randomized controlled trial. Researchers are gathering data to see what type of incentive has the biggest impact on participants’ fruit and vegetable consumption.
People in the program are enrolled into one of three incentive groups — $10, $20, or $40 per month.
For every dollar that they spend on fresh fruits or vegetables at Northgate Gonzalez Market, they get another dollar to buy more produce, up to the incentive amount for their group.
The researchers don’t have the results yet because they’re in their first year. But an NPR story highlighted the effects of the program on one woman and her family.
“She and her family have wanted to try different fruits and vegetables, but unfortunately they weren’t able to afford them,” said Joe Prickitt, a UCSD dietitian who is senior director of ¡Más Fresco! “Now with this program, they are able to choose fruits and vegetables that they have an interest in and try them — and it’s supporting the family’s health.”
Participants in ¡Más Fresco! are also able to choose foods that fit their family’s background, which can be an important step in helping people eat healthy.
“Studies for the longest time have demonstrated that culturally appropriate foods are so important for healthy eating,” Prickitt told Healthline.
Prickitt also said other retailers have already shown interest in how the program is run.
All incentives are tied to a Northgate loyalty card. There are no tokens, vouchers, or receipts for participants to keep track of.
This type of technology could easily be used by health insurance companies to encourage their members to eat more fruits and vegetables — and lower their healthcare costs — similar to fruit and vegetable prescription programs.
SNAP boosts economy and food security
The Food Trust runs another incentive program sponsored by the USDA’s FINI program.
As part of the Philly Food Bucks program, for every $5 that SNAP participants spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, they receive a $2 Philly Food Bucks coupon for more fresh fruits and vegetables.
The program started at farmers markets in the area, but it has recently expanded to include certain supermarkets and corner stores.
Weidman told Healthline that the incentives overcome one barrier that lower-income people face in eating healthy: affordability.
Even if people live near a supermarket that sells fresh fruits and vegetables, they might not be able to afford them. The incentives help with this.
But many lower-income neighborhoods are in food deserts. These are areas that lack access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods.
Food boxes may be able to get food to people, but they won’t address the issue of food deserts — another key in supporting lifelong healthy eating.
“Part of changing the habits and norms of a community is having the presence of a store in the community that sells affordable fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Weidman.
Food boxes, which would be shipped from outside a community, might also have unintended effects on the local economy.
The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that every dollar increase in SNAP spending generates about $1.70 in economic activity.
Much of this ends up in the local economy.
“All of that money benefits the local community and the local economy,” said Prickitt, “including grocers, retailers, farmers markets, and the farmers themselves.”
Food boxes could shift money away from local food businesses and worsen existing food deserts.
“We don’t want to have one mass distribution point for all the food in America,” said Weidman. “We want to have every community have food available locally. That makes good sense from a national security standpoint.”
So what about the administration’s goal of saving money?
Weidman thinks there’s a better way to cut costs than shaving billions of dollars from the program.
“As people are lifted out of poverty, they automatically leave the SNAP program,” said Weidman. “So we think the best way to bring down the costs related to SNAP is to create good-paying jobs for people.”