Oh SNAP: Federal Budget Reveals Need For Activism
Issue   |   Tue, 02/20/2018 - 18:54

On Sunday, Feb. 11, representatives from every environmentally-focused group and organization on campus, including the Office of Environmental Sustainability, congregated in the McCaffrey Room in Keefe. Each representative explained the work their group is involved in, some noting a desire to be more active or fielding ideas for upcoming projects. The meeting also marked the inception of the Food Justice League, a new group that will address social and environmental issues centered around one of our most basic needs. Both overdue and timely, the congregation served to inject some energy into environmental justice movements at Amherst and catalyse a new semester of organizing and activism.

The birth of the Food Justice League comes at an especially opportune moment, given the content of the 2019 federal budget. One of the budget’s most drastic changes relates to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamps Program. The changes outlined not only reduce federal funding for SNAP by almost 30 percent, shift a large part of the financial burden onto states and tighten eligibility, they also fundamentally restructure the program to resemble war-time rationing. Currently, SNAP operates by issuing an Electronic Benefit Credit card to recipients that can be used to purchase food at participating grocery stores. Under the new proposal, households that receive more than $90 in credit per month will receive a portion of that as a pre-selected package of “shelf-stable” foods. Leftover credit will still be available for use at approved grocery retailers. Essentially, instead of enjoying the basic ability to choose fresh foods for one’s family, SNAP recipients will be presented with a box of canned food and dried goods that will be “100 percent American grown.”

Although the budget claims the changes will “improve the nutritional value of the benefit,” a comprehensive study conducted by the University of California, Davis Food Science and Technology Department that compares relative nutrition between fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, disagrees. This study corroborates the results of many others, indicating that the canning process degrades nutrients in fruits and vegetables, especially water soluble nutrients like vitamin C. Since the only fruits and vegetables in the SNAP box will be canned, the government would be limiting the nutrition of recipients who may otherwise have used the SNAP credit to purchase fresh produce.

Besides its nutritional concerns, the proposed SNAP reorganization would take away the basic dignity of getting to choose one’s own food. For families with members who have allergies or other dietary restriction and preferences, a pre-packaged box of food presents serious obstacles. How could a distant, bureaucratic government know how to feed an individual or family better than they could themselves? SNAP recipients would be forced to deal with choices made by a detached entity that neither knows nor cares about their tastes. The plan is cruel and inconsiderate. Its design strips agency from people already in difficult circumstances, and it reveals the toxic notion that those in poverty deserve their condition and shouldn’t be given the same respect as the more affluent.

The limitations imposed by the proposed SNAP changes would also complicate local initiatives, such as the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), a United States Department of Agriculture-funded Massachusetts program to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables among low-income households. HIP works by awarding participants a 100 percent price match for SNAP credit when used to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs. The purpose of HIP is to reduce the burden of eating healthy for families receiving SNAP benefits and encourage the kind of healthy eating Trump’s proposed changes would make difficult. The Amherst Winter Farmers Market participates in HIP, but could see a reduction in participation if the SNAP alterations go into effect and limit the amount of free SNAP credit families could spend there.

While Trump’s proposal to shake up SNAP is far from receiving congressional approval, it is emblematic of the overall unkindness of the 2019 budget proposal, which includes other reductions of social programs, tightens border control and immigration policy and reduces corporate regulations. It also serves as a call to action and engagement with social and environmental problems, a call the Food Justice League intends to answer. When the federal government’s proposals represent an affront to human dignity, grassroots activists must be ready to campaign against them and generate their own solutions to maintain the social safety net in their communities. This activism must be intersectional, combining the interests of social and environmental efforts to pursue a sustainable way of life that places humans within and not apart from the local ecology and reduces stress on both people and natural resources.