On a recent Friday afternoon, under the watchful gaze of local food bank staff, 68-year-old John Samuel pawed through a box of government-sourced canned goods and found little inside that he wanted.
Canned carrots? “I wish we had peas,” he said.
Grape juice? “Well — it’s okay.”
Powdered milk? “Horrible.” He tossed the bag on a growing pile of identical bags, each abandoned by a food-box recipient earlier that day.
Such are the trade-offs of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a limited federal initiative for low-income seniors — and the model for the Trump administration's controversial pitch to radically transform the food stamp program.
The administration last week proposed halving the monthly benefit of most participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, and replacing it with a “Harvest Box” of shelf-stable government-sourced foods, a system that White House budget director Mick Mulvaney compared to Blue Apron.
The proposal was directly modeled after the existing senior food-box program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman said, and will include similar features. States will order boxed foods from a preset list and develop their own delivery and distribution networks, including through partnerships with nonprofit groups.
The administration argues its plan would cut costs while improving the diets of the estimated 43.6 million low-income Americans who use SNAP.
“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,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “It maintains the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive, provides states flexibility in administering the program, and is responsible to the taxpayers.”
But the senior food-box program also has significant flaws, from the foods it supplies to the infrastructure it’s built to deliver them. In CSFP, seniors have minimal or no choice in the foods they receive, which are intended as a supplement to their normal diets. There are minimal protections for people who cannot pick up their boxes. And the program is almost entirely reliant on volunteers, recruited by local nonprofit groups.
Scaling up the senior food-box program to serve tens of millions of people from the current 630,000 would prove both costly and complicated, experts said.
“[The senior food-box program] is an important program but serves far fewer people than SNAP,” said Elizabeth Wolkomir, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The proposal would require operational capacity that neither USDA nor states have.”
The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal blindsided the food industry and anti-hunger advocates. Many said they had never even heard the idea discussed before — not even during more than a dozen congressional hearings on the future of SNAP.
But the concept of a commodity food box isn’t entirely novel in the United States. The Agriculture Department has been in the business of buying and redistributing food since the Great Depression and has been distributing boxes to low-income pregnant women, young children and, more recently, seniors for nearly 50 years under the Commodity Surplus Food Program.
“We find that it helps a lot of seniors free up funds for other expenses, which on a fixed income is very important,” said Frank Kubik, the vice president of the National CSFP Association and the director of a senior food-box program in Detroit. “The program has historically enjoyed a lot of support.”
Experts caution that it is difficult to generalize about how CSFP works, because the program is administered largely on the local level. But the vast majority of participants receive a box of USDA commodities each month, which they or an authorized representative must pick up from a warehouse, apartment building or other centralized location.
The boxes are packed and delivered by local groups — usually nonprofits — that are subcontracted by the state. Local administrators order the foods from a predetermined USDA list, which includes a limited number of shelf-stable options from several food groups, including grains, fruits and vegetables. USDA sources these foods from domestic suppliers, including name-brand producers such as Del Monte, and sets rules for how many of each item a food-box can contain.
In the District, the Capital Area Food Bank relies on 12 paid, full-time staff members, one part-time staffer and upward of 140 monthly volunteers to administer the senior food assistance program. Volunteers pack the 27-pound boxes, and paid staff members deliver the majority of the boxes to a handful of low-income apartment buildings, where residents must come down to pick up their boxes. The food bank also distributes some boxes from a pickup center in Anacostia.
While nonprofit administrators are required to make special arrangements for homebound seniors, they do not have to make accommodations for people who can't get their boxes for other reasons, such as time constraints or transportation issues. At the Capital Area Food Bank, unclaimed boxes are given to other program-eligible seniors.
This month's box contained two cans or boxes each of green beans, carrots, applesauce, salmon, spaghetti, hot cereal and shelf-stable milk, plus two bottles of grape juice, a jar of peanut butter, a block of processed American cheese and a bag of nonfat milk powder.
“Every little thing makes a big difference,” said Ronald Mackie, a 53-year-old D.C. resident who came to pick up a box for his 87-year-old grandmother. “She gave me a little smile this morning and said ‘I’m looking forward to that box.’ ”
Advocates of the senior food-box program say it offers distinct benefits. The boxes are nutritionally balanced, with strict limits for sugar, salt and fat content, disallowing, for instance, fruits canned in full-sugar syrup.
According to USDA, a typical senior food box provides for a quarter of an individual's monthly calories and is far healthier than the average American diet. On the Healthy Eating Index, a standardized nutrition measurement that scores dietary quality out of 100, CSFP participants earn an 83.6. The average American scores a 59, USDA says.
“USDA Foods are really honed in on nutritional standards,” said Chris Facha, the president of the American Commodity Distribution Association and a USDA food coordinator for the state of Oregon. “They’re minimally processed, low sodium, reduced fat — they help recipients meet nutrition requirements.”
There appear to be cost savings for taxpayers, as well. Kubik, of the National CSFP Association, estimates that the federal government spends about $22 for every senior food box, and that those boxes would cost $40 to $50 if seniors had to buy their components themselves.
That lines up with internal USDA estimates: The agency says it can provide a box of shelf-stable foods for half the price of retail, but that figure does not account for the full cost of packing and delivering boxes.
Those costs could be astronomical if SNAP adopts the food-box model, said Kevin Taylor, who oversees the food-box program at the Capital Area Food Bank. While the food-box programs work on a small, local scale, local agencies do not have the resources to pack or deliver boxes to millions of people and are often dependent on volunteers, he said.
Experts on the senior food-box program also warn that many clients already have problems with the limited choices in the boxes. Those issues could be compounded, they fear, if the boxes became a primary food source for a vastly larger and more diverse population.
USDA does not supply kosher or halal foods to the senior food-box program, Taylor said; nor does it offer dairy substitutes, gluten-free grains, or low-sugar juice or fruit alternatives for diabetics. The D.C. food bank has stopped ordering orange juice, when possible, because it can be dangerous for dialysis patients.
“Sometimes they leave items behind,” Taylor said. “If they don't want them or can't have them.”
Back at the food-box distribution center in Anacostia, John Samuel is doing just that
He takes each item from his cardboard box — stamped “Healthy Food for Seniors” — before either placing it on the food bank’s giveaway table or dropping it into his shopping bag.
The former printing press operator has eaten the partially standardized American-grown diet that the Trump administration envisions for everyone on food stamps for the past three years.
“It’s okay,” he says of the food. “It’s not exactly what you’d like to have for yourself.”
And yet, Samuel said he would be loath to miss a pickup. Retired since 2012, the 68-year-old has come to depend on food boxes to supplement his Social Security income. As much as he doesn’t like the foods in the boxes, he said, he fears the alternative.
“You never know when you might wake up and not have food,” he said. “Or the money to buy it with.”