(Bloomberg) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun talking with grocery retailers about their potential role in a proposal to replace some food-stamp allocations with prepackaged boxes of groceries, Secretary Sonny Perdue said.
Grocers are already adding services such as food delivery that the so-called Harvest Box would require, Perdue told reporters Thursday in Washington after speaking at the department’s annual conference on the outlook for U.S. agriculture.
The proposal, included in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget, would represent one of the biggest shake-ups in the history of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
“We have some ideas on how our retailer community could participate,” Perdue said. “Rather than dismiss this out of hand, let’s discuss how it can be improved.”
Perdue didn’t name any specific grocers contacted by USDA. Shares of retailers that cater to lower-income Americans, including Dollar Tree Inc. and Dollar General Corp., dropped after the plan was unveiled, Feb. 12. The Harvest Box proposal would slash cash payments and substitute them with packages of food such as as cereal, pasta, canned fruit and meat.
The administration estimates substituting food deliveries for food assistance payments would save $129 billion over a decade. Still, it would pose logistical challenges as a distribution system set up, a problem Perdue acknowledged. The plan has also been criticized as stigmatizing the poor and returning U.S. social-service policies to Great Depression food-handout programs.
Lawmakers have been lukewarm to the idea, which conflicts with plans drawn up for a new farm bill due by Sept. 30. Perdue said he’s been talking to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, about the idea, potentially as a pilot program introduced on a limited basis.
Lawmakers will give the proposal “due diligence," said committee spokeswoman Rachel Millard. Conaway “really respects the secretary and believes at some level we need to consider this option and see if it makes sense,” she said.
The food stamp program served 42.2 million people and 20.9 million households on average during the 2017 fiscal year. SNAP assistance cost $68.1 billion in 2017, with $63.7 billion given out as benefits.
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