WASHINGTON – The boxes arrive every month at churches, senior citizen centers and other sites for distribution to nearly a half-million poor elderly people. Each is stocked with a mix of nutritious foods such as cereal, peanut butter, fruit, vegetables and pasta. Sometimes volunteers deliver them right to people's homes.
Now President Bush wants to eliminate the program, one of 141 federal initiatives that his proposed new budget would scrap or cut dramatically. He is proposing to shift people in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program over to food stamps.
Defenders of the nutrition-in-a-box program say many elderly people are reluctant to sign up for food stamps, and, in any event, the commodity program often provides a more generous package.
"It really does come under the category, in the most extreme way, of balancing the budget on the backs of those who are most needy. And in this case we're not even balancing the budget," said Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee.
"I call it misplaced priorities. How do you justify doing something like this, while at the same time giving people like Herb Kohl huge tax cuts?" said Kohl, a multimillionaire.
The commodity program, run by the Agriculture Department, benefits mainly elderly people, although some new mothers and children also participate. The department wants to move recipients to food stamps in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The program cost about $111 million this fiscal year, including a $4 million supplement for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The program, which dates back to 1968, operates in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
Its lack of national reach is one reason the administration wants to eliminate it, according to USDA officials.
Kate Coler, the USDA's deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said the department believes it can serve people more efficiently through food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children program, which are both nationwide.
"It's really a duplicative program," she said of CSFP.
But Tim Robertson, president of the National CSFP Association, which represents state and local organizations that administer the program, challenged the USDA's premise that people will switch over to food stamps.
"Seniors have repeatedly said they don't want to be on that program," Robertson said, because of the perceived stigma of using food stamps and the paperwork hassles.
The USDA's own statistics show that just 28 percent of seniors eligible for food stamps participate in the program.
Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, which administers the program in Milwaukee, said the commodity program helps elderly people stretch their food-buying budget.
"Sometimes seniors are choosing between utility bills and prescription drugs and whether they get to eat," she said.
The Bush administration is proposing to provide CSFP beneficiaries with transitional food stamp benefits of $20 a month for six months, or until they are deemed eligible for food stamps, whichever comes first.
Sarah Mayek, 75, of Milwaukee, receives both the CSFP box and $10 a month for food stamps.
"You try to stretch your budget a little bit," Mayek said. Without CSFP, she said, "I would have to adjust. But I raised 11 children. I know how to cut corners."
Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, said her agency is working to remove the perceived stigma. For example, she said, the agency is getting the word out that food stamp payments are now made by an electronic transfer card, not actual stamps.
"We try to make the point that this is not a welfare program, this is a nutritional assistance program," she said.