Last week, President Trump proposed a major cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as “food stamps”, in an attempt to jumpstart his plan for welfare reform. It’s the administration’s latest effort to further marginalize Americans on the fringes or economic privilege without an introspective look at the limited access to resources that keep them on those fringes.
The new program would require able-bodied SNAP beneficiaries to work despite other limitations including access to transportation, job insecurity and child care assistance. It would also institute a program, called “Harvest Box”, through which SNAP beneficiaries would receive a box of USDA-approved groceries to supplement the cut to food stamps, a program that already allots low-income folks access to groceries of their choice. The President’s proposal has been scrutinized by advocates for public assistance and welfare programs but especially by SNAP beneficiaries who interpret a cut to the program as damaging regardless of its positive intention. It has also inspired a discussion about a “war on food” in which poor folks are systematically denied access to fresh groceries and healthy food options.
What Is In the “Harvest Box”?
The USDA anticipates that the Harvest Box will include “shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, read-eat-cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish and canned fruits and vegetable.” As the SNAP program currently
exists, recipients have the autonomy to purchase their own, fresh groceries. This reform in welfare benefits is intended to mobilize poor people upward, requiring them to work in order to earn their benefits in some cases. This amendment is made, of course, under the assumption that welfare recipients don’t already work.
Food As a Weapon of Control
Nina Martyris reflects on Frederick Douglass’s analysis of “food as a weapon of control” in a recent article for NPR. Douglass’s writing explores the ways slave owners employed hunger to establish a hierarchy between slaves, often privileging house slaves with food consumed by the master’s family and guests while field slaves were afforded an insufficient cornmeal dish, comparable to dog food. Douglass even mentions that he and other slaves would compete with the slave master’s dog for the evening’s dinner scraps.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in Martyris’s article is a recounting of holiday festivities on the plantation where slaves were not only expected to participate in the revelling but often required to engage in drinking competitions as entertainment for the master’s guests. Douglass mentions that refusal to participate reflected a sentiment of ungratefulness and that ultimately, “we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.” Slaves had no autonomy, let alone the jurisdiction to decide when and what they wanted to eat, yet the expected response for one, balanced meal a year was gratitude.
The Big Picture
Food options in low-income communities reflect what the community can afford, which often means fast-food restaurants comprise the majority of eating establishments along with locally owned restaurants and grocery stores that offer limited, fresh produce. The Harvest Box initiative might also perpetuate what the Food Research and Action Center calls a “feast or famine situation”, a term that refers to parents who will skip meals to increase food options for their children. And, of course, it might contribute to the myriad health issues poor people face including hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and a host of other diseases related to malnutrition.
There are many comparisons to draw here, though that is not to say the President’s proposal to cut SNAP benefits is comparable to chattel slavery. But there are comparisons to draw. Most important is the question of autonomy; do the oppressed have access to agency under a capitalist bureaucracy? This question is further complicated by this nation’s legacy, built on the free labor of slaves who, of course, had no agency in the matter of their work. In deciding how poor Americans are nourished, the Trump administration participates in a legacy of surveillance and population control that has changed its face over the course of the country’s foundation. SNAP benefits already limit food options for poor people but it still affords them the autonomy to choose. Under the President’s initiative, underprivileged communities will be further dependent on government resources for something as basic and necessary as food. And all of that despite the work they do to uphold the country’s economy. While data indicates that most able-bodied welfare recipients work, there is still an insidious assumption, from the Trump administration in this case, that they do not. As president of the National WIC Association, Donald Greenaway, put it, “removing choice from SNAP flies in the face of encouraging responsibility… the budget seems to assume that participating in SNAP is a character flaw.”
We must be vigilant about the way politicians will weaponize the oppression of women, the queer community, the poor and people of color in the future. In just one year we have witnessed an assault on all of the aforementioned communities; the exclusion of trans people from restrooms matching their gender, staunch support of a politician accused of pedophilia (on multiple accounts), and xenophobic legislation aimed toward expelling Middle Eastern and Latinx immigrants from the United States. This recent effort to punish Americans for their lack of access to food resources indicates a nearsighted understanding of wealth disparities in the United States and how they are inextricably connected to the same denial of those resources.