A variety of protein shakes. Plastic scoops with powders.

Universal Basic Nutrient Income: Pros and Cons

By Jack Becker

Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential run included a smorgasbord of unique stances. From “Empowering MMA Fighters” to a “Robo-Calling Text Line” to “Making Taxes Fun,” he made waves. But his biggest wave came from the “Freedom Dividend,” a universal basic income (UBI) program that proposed providing each American with $1,000 per month. Like similar proposals in the past, the program garnered excited supporters and staunch detractors. And while COVID-19 reinvigorated the discussion around UBI, it’s unclear whether one will or should ever be enacted.

However, characteristics that make UBI attractive, particularly the direct support it provides, sans bureaucratic red tape, can be applied to other government programs. For example, ensuring America’s fundamental nutritional needs are met. The government could directly provide all citizens with food or, more simply, with nutrients. Introducing: Universal Basic Nutrient Income (UBNI).

Following the model of companies like Soylent and Huel, the government could aim to develop the healthiest, cheapest, most sustainable, and all-around best powdered meal replacement. The perfect UBNI Shakes would be available to all Americans for free (well, funded by taxes). UBNI could replace the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other government food programs. There could be a UBNI Shake for every bottle, and more time in everyone’s days.

Some Pros

Like UBI, two of the major benefits of UBNI would be providing direct support for Americans and cutting through bureaucracy.

Direct Support for Americans

Despite current government programs like SNAP, the economic costs of food insecurity are staggering. Estimates for increased health care costs due to food insecurity fall around $53 billion per year. The costs of unhealthy eating are similarly high, coming in at around $50 billion per year. UBNI feeds two birds with one hand. If UBNI Shakes were directly available to every American, no one would be food insecure. And if people only consumed UBNI Shakes, no one would be eating unhealthily. Complete adoption of UBNI Shakes is unlikely, but even having some Americans adopt them would reduce food insecurity and unhealthy eating.

Further, UBNI directly gives people nutrients instead of giving them funds to shop for food (which is how SNAP operates). This addresses another two existing problems.

First, shopping for food and preparing nutritious food is time-consuming. SNAP does not allow funds to be used on products like hot foods, so the easiest option for busy families may be to buy heavily processed but ready-to-eat foods. Preparing some foods, like fish, can also be risky and intimidating (what if it spoils quickly, if it’s cooked wrong, if kids don’t like it and it’s wasted, etc.). Yet, avoiding certain foods may mean missing out on valuable nutrients. For fish, this might mean omega-3 fatty acids, which have shown interesting links to reducing antisocial and aggressive behavior in children.

Second, there are constant debates over whether SNAP funds should be permitted to be used for unhealthy food. With UBNI, government funds are only used for required nutrients. People could still buy unhealthy food, it would just be with their own funds. The controversies over SNAP would be extinguished.

Cutting Through Bureaucracy

On the red tape side, SNAP has many hallmarks of classic bureaucratic programs. One of these hallmarks is eligibility requirements based on income. This means that while a household of five with a gross monthly income of $3,362 makes the cut, an identical household making $3,364 does not. This type of binary seems unfair to the household making $2 more per month. Under UBNI, the second household would be fully covered (as would every other household in the United States).

Another hallmark is massive administrative costs. The federal government spends 7.7% of the SNAP budget on administrative costs, totaling over $5 billion. Most of this goes towards supporting state administration of the program, and states contribute around an equal amount to administrative costs. The administrative funds go towards things like preventing fraud, determining eligibility, and providing nutrition education. With UBNI, none of this would be necessary. The only costs would be developing the UBNI Shake and distributing it.

And Plenty of Cons

Of course, there is no shortage of downsides to UBNI. To start, it could fairly be deemed an unrealistic “shortcut[] to Utopia” (as FDR called UBI) with countless unknown issues. It’s unclear whether people would support, trust, or even consume a government-created food substitute. People are already vegetable-averse, with 90% of Americans coming up short on daily vegetable intake. So imagine convincing people to consume a UBNI Shake every day (no matter how nutritious).

Advocates pushing for better cultural representation in government food policy would not appreciate how UBNI completely erases the cultural aspects of food. This leads into the fault lines between the “eat to live” and “live to eat” philosophies. In short, “eat to live” focuses on food’s functional value, and “live to eat” focuses on enjoyment of food. While pure “eat to live” supporters may support UBNI, “live to eat” advocates would consider it antithetical to human flourishing. Even if people could supplement their UBNI Shakes with other food (don’t worry, Thanksgiving dinner would not have to be sitting around a table drinking delicious UBNI Shakes), replacing the “dignity and autonomy” that SNAP provides with mundane nutrients would be an unpopular decision for many.

Whether UBNI would be supported or not, there’s a bigger question of whether it would even be healthy. Nutrition research is famously difficult for a variety of reasons, and there is still plenty that we don’t know. This includes the effects of replacing solid food with meal replacement drinks, especially when it comes to areas like the microbiome. A diversified diet may be our greatest asset against the unknown in nutrition. So, betting everything on a single UBNI Shake would be risky for the entire country’s health. Plus, people vary in their nutrient requirements. Creating one perfect UBNI Shake for everyone seems impossible (and/or exorbitantly expensive), and customizing them would complicate the supposedly simple operation.

The Bottom Line

Realistically, UBNI seems unlikely to happen. People love their food. And few Congresspeople would want to be associated with replacing a program providing (funds for) food that tastes good with nutritionally superior shakes.

However, considering wacky options can facilitate the brainstorming of better ones. Thinking with the “eat to live” lens is a helpful experience. Maybe the government needs to add a more nutrient-focused part of food programs, even if it’s less enjoyable. And considering benefits of more direct aid, like saving people time, could lead to innovative and helpful solutions. For example, consider how much time government-sponsored meal kits (to cut down on shopping time and retailer mark-up) would save people. And they might taste a little better than UBNI Shakes.

Jack Becker

Jack is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center. He thanks you for reading this and hopes you have a great day!

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