Innovation Ecosystem

Why Harvest Boxes may not be a good idea

Local public health advocates weigh in on the benefits of purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables through SNAP

Photo by Richard Asinof

Amy Nunn, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, speaks at the opening of a Food on the Move mobile market in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/19/18
Advocates at the Rhode Island Public Health Institute explain what is wrong with the proposed Harvest Boxes program by the Trump administration.
Will the study now underway to quantify and measure the impact of the double SNAP benefits to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables on health outcomes and health care costs help to dispel questions by Rhode Island legislators about the value of the program? When will government officials managing UHIP straighten out the problems with dispensing SNAP benefits to needy Rhode Islanders? Is there a study that has been done for Rhode Island workers that documents how SNAP benefits help to preserve low wages for corporate employers doing business in Rhode Island?

Between the successful campaign to purchase the Vendituoli farm in Barrington to preserve it as a working farm to the ongoing efforts of FarmFresh RI to become a training ground for food workers and the growing beds established in Pawtucket as part of the ongoing action plan of the health equity zone, there have been a number of success stories in Rhode Island building upon better food and nutrition as cornerstones of a healthy community.

PROVIDENCE – Some weeks it is hard to keep track of the almost daily outrages emerging from the Trump administration.

From the lack of full security clearances for top White House officials such as Trump son in law Jared Kushner allowing him to view the most sensitive classified information to the expensive first class travel bills incurred by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, from the latest indictments by Special Counsel Robert Mueller of 13 Russians charged with crimes related to attempts to disrupt the 2016 Presidential election to the inability of President Trump to mention guns in his response to the latest school mass shooting in Florida, from the belated unwillingness to address concerns about domestic violence by White House senior staff member Rob Porter, who allegedly beat two former wives, to the opposition to immigration reform and restoring federal protection under DACA, it was easy to lose sight of the recent Trump administration proposal to replace Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program, or SNAP benefits, with something called “Harvest Boxes.”

Perhaps not since President Ronald Reagan attempted to have ketchup defined as a vegetable as part of school lunch programs in the early 1980s has there been such a blatant attempt to undermine the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy American diet, particularly for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

Instead of having funds administered through the current process of EBT cards, the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Trump would create a system of delivered food goods to those receiving benefits, while at the same time cutting the overall budget for SNAP benefits. More than 45 million Americans have received SNAP benefits on an annual basis, according to recent government numbers.

[In a story that does augur well for “Harvest Boxes,” an effort to distribute prepared, boxed meals to victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has proven to be a dismal failure, according to numerous published reports. Some 30 million meals were promised, only 50,000 were delivered under a $156 million contract, a contract that was terminated by FEMA 20 days after it was signed, according to a CNN story published on Tuesday, Feb. 6.]

Food insecurity in Rhode Island
ConvergenceRI caught up with two food insecurity experts in Rhode Island, Amy Nunn, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, and her colleague, Eliza Dexter Cohen, the food access coordinator, who is responsible for coordinating the Food on the Move program, a mobile market that brings fresh fruits and vegetables directly into neighborhoods and communities, including libraries, senior residences, community centers, and elementary schools.

Through the Food on the Move program, recipients of SNAP benefits are able to double their purchasing power when buying fresh fruits and vegetables at the mobile markets.

According to Cohen, SNAP benefits are a huge economic driver for Rhode Island, with some $250 million in benefits provided to Rhode Island residents every year from the federal government. Through the Food on the Move mobile market program, more than $30,000 in incentive double SNAP benefits are distributed each year, a number that Cohen and Nunn hope to be able to scale up.

“Those benefits go directly to the people selling food [in retail stores],” Cohen said. “It is a significant amount of money is this small economy.”

Nunn, in turn, said that the new proposal amounted to a direct attack on poor people. Even the name of the proposed program, Harvest Boxes, was misleading, according to Nunn. The so-called “Harvest Boxes,” Nunn said, has nothing to do with a harvest. Her office at the Rhode Island Public Health Institute has been flooded with numerous calls during the past week, Nunn said.

Harvest Boxes, she continued, “does not promote healthy eating and it restricts consumer choice. It will force people  to eat more processed food, rather than giving them choices about what they can eat.”

Further, Nunn argued, it would create a system under which it would be much more difficult to disseminate benefits,” unlike the current system, which adds benefits through EBT cards.

All of the economic studies conducted to date have found “terrific evidence” that the double SNAP benefits increases the consumption of people eating more fruits and vegetables, promoting healthy eating behaviors, according to Nunn.

A food bond in 2019?

One of the ways in which Rhode Island may be able to scale up the efforts of the Food on the Move initiative is through a potential food bond now being discussed by food industry advocates to put on the ballot in 2019, as part of the state’s food strategy planning process being managed by Sue Anderbois, according to Cohen.

The funding to support scaling up the Food on the Move program and expanding the double SNAP benefits for purchasing fruits and vegetables would be one of a number of potential investments, including investments in food industry infrastructure, according to Cohen.

Investments being discussed include new infrastructure to support fisheries and fish processing and distribution, Cohen said.

Editor's note: Cohen asked ConvergenceRI to clarify and to emphasize that any discussions about a potential food bond and what might be included were very preliminary in nature.

A study is currently underway to quantify the downstream impacts of the Food on the Move program, with results expected by the end of the year.

“We know anecdotally about the health impacts and the health care spending impacts,” Cohen said, but the new study will be able to validate those stories. “We touch about 5,000 people a year, a small fraction of the people who could be using the double SNAP benefits.”


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