Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

SNAP food box idea bombs

Poverty | Critics say pre-packaged food assistance limits choice, saps dignity
by Rob Holmes
Posted 2/28/18, 02:36 pm

Advocates for the poor are lambasting a Trump administration proposal to make massive changes to the federal food assistance program. Democrats and Republicans called the new idea a surprise to everyone, noting officials never discussed it with them before adding it to the administration’s proposed 2019 budget.

The proposal would shift the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from allowing recipients total discretion to buy their own food, using benefit money, to a 50-50 plan: Half of all assistance benefits would continue in the form of electronic funds on debit cards and half would come via America’s Harvest Box, an allotment of goods such as juice, grains, peanut butter, canned food, and cereal delivered to local pick-up points. 

The food boxes could amount to $130 billion in savings over the next decade, according to the Trump budget. SNAP currently costs the government about $70 billion per year. 

Most criticism of the plan decries its reduced choices for the poor. 

“SNAP is so successful because it gives low-income families the autonomy and dignity to make their own food choices,” said Craig Gundersen, an agricultural strategy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

But consumers often are willing to trade choice for cost-savings and convenience. Trendy food and meal delivery services popular among urban professionals usually don’t specify what comes in each box. And SNAP and other assistance programs already limit what participants can purchase with the funds. 

Assistance organizations like food banks also use pre-boxed allotments, so the concept isn’t new.

“The worry over lack of choice is not really an issue since most food banks give assistance as ‘pre-packs’ of canned food, chosen and packaged by a facility” and picked up by recipients on site, Carlo Wright, warehouse manager at ECCO food bank in metro Charleston, S.C., told me. ECCO is one of the only “client choice food banks” on the East Coast, where recipients can make a shopping list of foods they prefer.

Along with saving taxpayers money, the administration proposal could help American famers, since the boxes would include “100 percent U.S. grown and produced food,” in line with President Donald Trump’s “Buy American” order. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called the box “a bold innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families.”

But it could complicate life for those who have dietary or medical requirements. Some critics also fear the government might not respect families’ cultural or religious preferences, foisting canned pork or potted meat products on participants. But the boxes could help families who live in so-called “food deserts,” where grocery stores selling reasonably priced items are scarce.

Still, questions about the proposal remain. Members of congressional nutrition and agriculture subcommittees wondered who would distribute the boxes, how program participants would find transportation to the distribution centers, and whether recipients would even pick up the box if it wasn’t as convenient as running to a local store. SNAP now relies on grocery retailers and their supply networks, which would have a reduced role—and income—in the new proposal. 

“It’s a program that expands and contracts as the economy expands and contracts, as well,” said Matt Knott, president of Feeding America. He scoffed at the box proposal, calling it unworkable and inefficient. 

The House Agriculture Committee held 21 hearings and listened to 80 experts testify about SNAP for the upcoming farm bill, but chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the food box idea never came up once. Perdue may have originated the approach in a brainstorming session, a USDA spokesman said. Because it’s part of the government budget, any changes to the SNAP program need congressional approval.

Whatever happens will affect a huge swath of Americans. People receiving food assistance still outnumber school children in states like Oregon and South Carolina, despite a trend of historically low enrollment in the program since Trump took office: SNAP participation declined from 44.2 million in fiscal year 2016 to 42.2 million in fiscal year 2017.

Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Attorney general denounces criminal justice reforms

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted this month to advance a bipartisan bill giving judges more discretion in prison sentencing, moving away from mandatory minimums—especially for nonviolent offenses.

Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., filed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in October in a bid to reduce incarceration, reform sentencing, and reduce prison costs.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions attacked the bill’s provisions ahead of the committee vote.

“Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences,” Sessions told Grassley, according to CNN.

Session ignited a firestorm of protest with his May 2017 memorandum to all federal prosecutors, calling for “consistent results” in sentencing. Sessions said prosecutors must pursue the “most serious, readily provable offense” that carries mandatory minimums.

Critics like Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocate “individualized” sentencing and crime-reduction programs. They warn of growing mass incarceration in the current system, a problem that could be prevented if sentences are less stringent, especially for juvenile or cooperative offenders. 

Sessions prefers a crime-to-punishment consistency across the system. The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys warn reducing mandatory sentences could cause a jump in violent crime—which, combined with property crime, declined by 14.6 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Whether mandatory minimums for drug or gun crimes are a weapon against minorities, they do drain more Department of Justice money into corrections costs, now 25 percent of its budget.

“Fifty percent of federal prisoners are convicted for non-violent drug offenses,” according to Prison Fellowship. That’s more than 90,000 people, mainly men.

Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for policy and advocacy at Prison Fellowship, asked Congress in 2015 to provide “values-based” reform to solve the problem of an expanding and overcrowded prison system, while reducing overall expense. He advocated spending more to build “a more constructive prison culture” to help people become better citizens with a view to life again outside prison. —R.H. Police officers arrest a homeless woman in Venice Beach, Calif.

Study shows police use of force ‘rare’

A new study concludes police officers are unlikely to apprehend and injure suspects with use of force, despite the popular assumption that dramatic armed encounters are the norm.

The three-state study looked at two years of data from three midsized police departments with a total of 1.04 million emergency calls. Researchers found only 893 use-of-force incidents during 114,064 criminal arrests—a rate of 1 in 128, or less than 1 percent. 

Of the 893 incidents, only 16 people suffered significant injury, including one person who died. 

The study, which appeared in the March issue of the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, aimed to “determine the incidence of use of force by police and compare the rates of significant injury among the different methods that police officers employ,” according to lead author William P. Bozeman, professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Bozeman’s research team further reviewed medical records to analyze which injuries tended to result from certain means of force.

“Police use of force is rare,” the study concluded. And when officers used force in encounters with suspects, they were most likely to opt for unarmed physical force (51 percent) or taser use (36 percent). Officers less frequently used pepper spray (6 percent) and service dogs (3 percent). Batons and firearms each accounted for less than 1 percent of all police interactions reviewed in the study.

The study’s results mirrored the experience of Mount Pleasant, S.C., Senior Police Officer David Ivey.

“In my 10½ years in law enforcement, I have used spray one time, my baton two times, and never fired my taser,” he told me. Ivey said he had never been involved in an incident during which someone got shot, though he had assisted other officers five times in taser incidents.

According to a database maintained by The Washington Post, 987 people died as a result of armed police intervention nationwide in 2017. Nearly 60 percent of the victims possessed a firearm at their time of death. —R.H.

House passes anti-sex trafficking bill

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday designed to close a loophole in the Communications Decency Act (CDA) used by websites such as to post online sex ads. Current anti-trafficking laws have failed to stop Backpage, which has successfully defended itself by citing a small section of the CDA that says online intermediaries that host or republish speech aren’t responsible for what their customers say and do. Backpage garners 90 percent of its profits from sex ads, many involving minors, earning the company as much as $2.5 million a month in California alone. According to a recent report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 73 percent of suspected child trafficking reports it receives involve Backpage. The bill now heads to the Senate, which passed a similar version out of committee. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill if it makes it to his desk. —Gaye Clark

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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  • Vista48
    Posted: Wed, 02/28/2018 05:10 pm

    How does being picky about something provided to you for your benefit at no cost give you dignity? Or put another way, how does one lose their dignity by not getting to specify what is given to them? We're not making them eat dog food, for goodness sake. Perhaps we are once again suffering from unreasonable expectations. 

  • Kiwi's picture
    Posted: Thu, 03/01/2018 10:36 am

    Our food pantry is rare, in that we offer our clients choices.  They love it, and it does affirm their dignity.  They already lose some of that having to come for free food.  I also think it is a waste of time loading them up with cans of green beans and cranberry sauce, when they don't like them, and couldn't stomach them.  We save those for people who like them and will eat them.  When we have juice, we ask,' would you prefer orange, grape or cranberry?'  Such a simple thing means a lot to them.  Despite the stereotypes, many of our clients work, and the need in our poor rural area is increasing.

  • E Cole
    Posted: Fri, 03/02/2018 06:49 pm

    So nice to hear from someone working to help the poor, without being condescending or patronizing. Good for you.


  • CaptTee's picture
    Posted: Fri, 03/02/2018 11:31 pm

    There is a diffference in that food pantries hand out food that is donated (or the funds are donated), whereas the SNAP program uses involuntary collected taxes.

  • CaptTee's picture
    Posted: Fri, 03/02/2018 11:26 pm

    If pre-packaged food assistance limits choice, saps dignity, then so does giving them money. Oh, the hypocrisy!