Hunger and Dignity

“Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.” Proverbs 14:21

At the national Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., which I attended with 1500 persons from across the country a little over a week ago, no policy proposal generated as much consternation as the President’s proposal for “America’s Harvest Box.”

At a plenary luncheon, an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture pitched the idea of converting half of the food assistance received by some participants in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called FoodShare in Wisconsin) to a pre-selected, pre-packaged box of shelf-stable food. It would include dry, shelf stable foods like dry milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.

This idea was not well-received. The audience was made up of persons from food banks, meal programs, anti-poverty organizations, and local and state government. These are people who work every day to help struggling individuals and families get the food they need. They believe in the human dignity of those they serve. They knew that the boxes, although purportedly providing more healthy food at less cost, would be inefficient, wasteful, inadequate – and insulting.

On visits to the offices of every U.S. Senator and Representative for Wisconsin, I accompanied staff from Feeding Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association as they patiently explained why the “Harvest Box” is a bad idea.

Assembling and delivering the boxes would be a logistical nightmare for food banks and other groups administering the program. If the foods included did not meet recipients’ dietary needs or cultural preferences, they might simply be discarded. Fewer SNAP dollars would be spent in neighborhood grocery stores to benefit the local economy.

The deepest problem with this proposal, though, is the way it reverses years of hard-won progress in making anti-hunger programs more respectful of people’s dignity, individuality, and autonomy.

The current system uses an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, similar to a debit card. The card enables SNAP participants to shop for food the way anyone else can, without the stigma associated with using special paper coupons (as in the old “food stamps”). They have the freedom to choose the food that is most appropriate for their family. Even food pantries are moving toward “client choice” and away from handing families a pre-selected food package.

The “Harvest Box,” like legislation that would restrict the food that people can buy with their FoodShare benefits (such as AB 530, which recently passed the state Assembly) is not only impractical and unnecessarily complicated; it is a way of telling people “You can’t be trusted” and “We know what’s best for you.” It is not surprising that one congressional staffer called it the “shame box.”

Neither the research, nor the economics nor our faith justifies this as good policy. Let’s not treat our fellow human beings – made, like ourselves, in God’s image – with suspicion or contempt simply because they find themselves in difficult circumstances. It is not only as individuals and in our daily interactions, but also through our common life – how we implement law and public policy – that we are called to show kindness to our neighbors.

Are you moved to take action? Our legislative alert center has options, including helpful language for contacting your elected representatives about SNAP.

Peter Bakken, Coordinator for Public Policy

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