The SNAP Box is a bad idea. Jewish history tells us why.
by Jonathan Paul Katz
Photo credit: usda.gov
IF YOU HAVE NOT yet heard, the Trump administration last week came out with one of its most pilloried and dehumanizing ideas: to replace half of the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with a box of preselected dry goods. Of course, the Republican Party has had SNAP — colloquially known as “food stamps” — in its crosshairs for a while now. The myth that people are on the program out of laziness or incompetence, rather than due to the very real unfortunate causes of poverty and the very real need to eat, simply will not go away. In fact, reducing SNAP benefits has been the dream of some Republican leaders for years.
This box, however, reaches a new level of cruelty: instead of being able to spend the benefits on the food that they actually will eat, SNAP beneficiaries would receive a box of prepackaged dry goods, including shelf-stable milk, pasta, cereals, and canned products. Not only is fresh produce not included, but no provision as to what different communities actually eat seems to have been considered. Never mind the mind-bogglingly difficult logistics of rolling out such a program. Though some in the administration have claimed that the idea was never meant to be brought to fruition, the excitement of the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, and many conservative pundits for the proposal shows that the idea had very real meaning.
It is pretty obvious why this idea is dehumanizing and cruel, on a basic level. As I pointed out on a rather popular Twitter thread last week, when you are poor, so much is out of your control. So having any choice in what you eat is small but hugely meaningful. Besides: choosing, acquiring, and preparing food to eat is a basic part of modern adulthood. When you limit it, you undermine the right to be an adult.
There is also a very direct message that the government is sending: that poor people cannot be trusted to make their own life choices. Despite decades of data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, showing that food stamp recipients spend their benefits well, the myth that program beneficiaries cannot be trusted persists. (In fact, SNAP recipients buy less junk food than higher-income consumers.) The box idea also fails to consider that different beneficiaries might lack the resources to cook or the ability to eat certain foods, while overlooking cultural norms related to food. And though the largest group of SNAP recipients are native-born whites, people of color and immigrants, who together make up at least 40 percent of program beneficiaries, would probably not have their dietary needs or habits addressed under this proposal. That is the point: the Trump administration does not believe the poor should have a right to control what they eat.
We have seen this practice before: the administration’s proposal is simply a revival of a long tradition of social reformers telling poor people what to eat and what not to.
IN THE LATE 19TH and early 20th centuries, social reformers sought to reprogram the diets of the poor people with whom they worked. The prevailing idea among those in power was that an Anglo-American diet, rich in dairy products, wheat bread, and meat, was the most “healthful.” (Because of technical advancements and industrialization in agriculture, such a diet had also become feasible for a wide population only recently.) Food that did not meet this metric was seen as suspect — and, generally, it was the food of recent immigrants or people of color. Rice and corn were considered less nutritious than wheat; pickled and garlicky items were considered bad for one’s constitution and for working; food that was too spiced was considered unnutritious and smelly.
People were encouraged to adopt the “plain foods” that were not-so-coincidentally those associated with white, Christian English-speakers. Pamphlets distributed by local governments and charities warned readers about the dangers of traditional foods. Classes offered by settlement houses pushed immigrant women to abandon their native cuisines and told them that their own (often years-long) culinary knowledge was wrong. Government-funded mass media campaigns — first in newspapers and then by radio — encouraged readers and listeners to abandon the “overstimulating” ethnic foods of the past and use certain canned rations and dairy for nutritious and normative meals. Of course, this was hugely beneficial for the nascent mass-market food industry.
Jews in impoverished neighborhoods were especially targeted. The fermented, pickled, peppered, and salted foods of Ashkenazi cooking were considered completely inappropriate by social reformers and inspectors, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Documents from the time reveal shock that small children were, for example, eating pickles and dark bread. German Jewish social organizations in the U.S. encouraged new immigrants to adopt American cooking through classes, books, and outreach. Charities provided food to the poor — but the poor had no choice in what was provided. Jews and other objects of this reform protested — to be sure, many had come to America for food security, but they had their own ideas about what food security meant, and what food was.
It is not difficult to see the parallels between this history and what Trump and his ilk are proposing today. The idea that poor people’s food is not suitable for consumption, or that their choices are inherently suspect, comes directly from that period of time.
THERE ARE MORE recent examples from Jewish history, too. In the early years of the State of Israel, Ashkenazi social workers employed similar tactics on newly-arrived Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. As Yael Raviv documented in her book Falafel Nation, cooking lessons and social support pushed Mizrahi immigrants to Israel to adopt a newly nationalized, mostly Ashkenazi cuisine in lieu of their own Middle Eastern cuisines. Part of the motivation was to build an idea of nationhood in the Zionist state, and part was because Mizrahi and Sephardic food was seen as unhygienic, unhealthy, and suspect. The tzena (rationing) system of the early state made such a change almost forced: the food that was available and given out reflected, in part, this state-sponsored cuisine.
Many new immigrants had never encountered these foods, however, and did not know how to prepare them; others could not digest them. The whole affair was often deeply humiliating and frustrating for immigrants who were essentially refugees, living in substandard conditions in the ma’abarot (transit camps) and then the ayarot pituach (“development towns”) on the fringes of Israel. Trump’s proposal similarly pushes SNAP recipients from marginalized communities to cook a certain way — even if those foods are unfamiliar to them, even if they do not want to cook with them, and even if they cannot digest them.
Aside from the question of cultural erasure is a more basic affront: the loss of personal choice and dignity. Choosing food is part of adulthood. Being allowed to take care of oneself is basic dignity. Taking these responsibilities away denies people their dignity and has a huge negative psychological impact on poor people, who lack much choice in their lives. Our Jewish tradition teaches that we should go to every length to respect kavod habriyot, the honor due to all people, in our daily lives. The box proposal is infantilizing and inconsiderate, and does precisely the opposite.
There are many ways in which we need to fix the SNAP program. The benefits are not extensive enough; one cannot use SNAP to buy other essentials like diapers or soap; the inability to purchase some hot prepared foods is a barrier for those without shelter or with disabilities that prevent them from cooking. But positive change won’t be effected through a one-size-fits-all approach. And we must always preserve the choice and the dignity in this program. SNAP has lifted millions out of poverty, and kept millions more from being hungry. Any fix must allow that to continue. And, as Jewish history teaches us, force — be it in the form of cooking classes by “social reformers,” a policy, or a cardboard box — is not the answer.
Jonathan Paul Katz is a government writer and the author of Flavors of Diaspora, a Jewish food blog. He lives in New York City. This article has nothing to do with his employment.