A top USDA official was met with boos and derisive laughter when he attempted to sell anti-hunger activists and food banks on the Trump administration’s proposal to convert a portion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to food boxes. 

Brandon Lipps, USDA’s acting deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer services, pleaded with people attending the annual National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference to consider the proposal, which the White House estimates would cut the cost of SNAP by $213 billion over 10 years.

“As with any innovative idea, and we don’t see those inside the Beltway very often, there are questions to be answered and details to be worked out. We want to hear from you. Your boos are welcome, but so are your good ideas,”  Lipps said. 

The conference, which drew more than 1,100 people this year, is sponsored by the Food Research and Action Center, a leading anti-hunger advocacy organization, and Feeding America, the national network of food banks. A few people walked out of the conference room as Lipps defended the "Harvest Box" proposal.

House Agriculture Chairman MIke Conaway, R-Texas, has told Agri-Pulse that he’s considering including a provision in the next farm bill to authorize a pilot project to test the food box proposal, which was included in President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget. 

Lipps said the proposal would ensure “that all SNAP recipients receive the same level of food with significant savings in the program.” 

Lipps suggested at one point that converting cash benefits to the proposed food boxes would expand SNAP’s reach, although a number of other proposals in the budget are designed to reduce SNAP eligibility. 

“We can serve more people, we can serve people better with a conversation about better ways to do things,” Lipps said. 

But Lipps’ core argument for food boxes is that they are needed to help reduce the federal budget deficit, and that argument was met with extended laughter. The budget was released Feb. 12, less than two months after President Trump signed into law a package of tax cuts that would increase budget deficits by more than $1 trillion over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “is genuinely concerned about the soon to be $21 trillion (federal debt) that we have in this country. He’s also concerned about keeping people fed. Any of you who have had the opportunity to meet Secretary Perdue know that he’s genuine about these things."

Lipps also was met with laughter when he said that USDA wanted to leave it up to states to decide how the food boxes would be delivered. “We do believe these could be delivered to every SNAP recipient’s homes with tens of billions of dollars in savings provided,” he persisted. 

Under the Trump proposal, households receiving $90 or more per month in SNAP benefits would receive about half of those benefits in the form of a USDA foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, breakfast cereal, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.

The amount of food provided to each family would be scaled to the overall size of the household’s SNAP allotment. About 81 percent of SNAP households, or 16.4 million households, would be affected by the plan. 

FRAC President Jim Weill told Agri-Pulse after Lipps left the conference that the food-box plan would “totally transform the fundamentals of a program that is working incredibly well, that gives people a dignified way of getting food through normal commercial channels like everyone else.”

Weill said a pilot project would be redundant and unnecessary since USDA already distributes food to Indian reservations under a program similar to the Harvest Box plan. On reservations, the foods are distributed in lieu of SNAP cash benefits. “There are delivery issues, food choice issues, or lack of food choice issues. It’s just a bad model from top to bottom,” said Weill said. 

The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, addressed the conference over lunch and told the crowd the Harvest Box plan was the "stupidest idea I think I've ever heard." 

Referring to Lipps' reception at the conference, McGovern said, "I heard it got a little bit feisty, and maybe there were a few boos, right? Thank you. Good for you."

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