In an effort to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Trump administration is considering giving low-income families a food box containing government-picked, non-perishable foods each month to replace food stamps.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Mick Mulvaney supported the idea, claiming it was a modern way to save money and provide families with healthier food than they are currently receiving. The idea is in the style of fresh food delivery services such as Blue Apron or Hello Fresh.

The food package, nicknamed ‘America’s Harvest Box’ by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), will consist of foods such as long-life milk, peanut butter, canned fruits, canned meats and cereal.  All products will be grown and produced in the US.

According to the executive fiscal budget of 2019: “The Budget proposes a bold new approach to nutrition assistance that combines traditional SNAP benefits with 100% American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies.”

Preliminary figures provided denote the new system will save around $129 billion over 10 years, around half the money currently spent by families under SNAP. Leftover finances would then be redistributed to SNAP recipients on an electronic card as per the current system.

USDA director of communications Tim Murtaugh said that individual states would be able to choose how they distribute the food packages to those households, meaning there would be no federal delivery system. Recipients of the programme–currently affecting around 38 million Americans in 16 million households nationwide–must earn less than $90 per month.

“The projected savings does not include shipping door-to-door for all recipients,” said Murtaugh.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue commended the idea, conceived of almost exclusively by the USDA, suggesting that recipients will get the same value of foods, states will have greater flexibility, and the system will save taxpayers money.

“USDA America’s Harvest Box is a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families—and all of it is home-grown by American farmers and producers,” Perdue said in a statement.

Criticisms of the new system

The USDA food box, unlike its private counterparts, will not include any fresh produce or meat as these products are too expensive to ship and will not last very long.

There are also concerns over how these food packages will reach individuals in rural communities and the impact on local, small-scale grocers.

The Center for Rural Affairs policy associate Jordan Rasmussen said: “This action would not only destabilise attempts to bring more healthy, fresh foods into the homes of America’s food insecure, but would keep dollars out of local grocery stores and farmers markets, which are critical assets to all communities.”

Further issues exist over how the boxes can be customised for individuals suffering from allergies or food intolerances. For example, whether the food boxes would be able to cater to vegetarians, vegans, or those who require kosher or halal options.

Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg said he was baffled by the plan, saying: “They have managed to propose nearly the impossible, taking over $200 billion worth of food from low-income Americans while increasing bureaucracy and reducing choices.”

Hunger Free America, which helps families to access food directly, raised concerns over whether SNAP recipients would actually be able to cook the food that comes in the box. Spokesperson Miguelina Diaz said: “We deal with different people of different backgrounds. Limiting them by providing them a staple box would limit the choices of food they can prepare for their families.”

The Food Research and Action Center suggested the idea was overcomplicated as well as ‘costly, inefficient, stigmatising, and prone to failure.’ Anti-hunger advocates are already drawing parallels with wartime rations systems and soup lines during the Great Depression.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities vice-president Stacy Dean went so far as to describe the proposal as ‘a risky scheme that threatens families’ ability to put food on the table.’