Keeping families fed all month long requires re-evaluating SNAP

June 29, 2021
by Max De Faria, 2021 Emerson National Hunger Fellow via the Congressional Hunger Center

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is the most effective anti-hunger program in the nation. In May 2021 alone, SNAP helped feed more than 41 million people according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program works by providing households with an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card on which they receive supplemental money for food. SNAP households receive a monthly benefit that is calculated from a prebudgeted meal plan created by USDA, called the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP).  

USDA has been conducting listening sessions over the course of the spring to re-evaluate the TFP and thus, SNAPRESULTS Expert on Poverty Maxine Thomas participated in these listening sessionsspeaking on behalf of RESULTS, to share the impact of inadequate SNAP benefits for families in her community. Additionally, RESULTS is providing USDA with written comments on the TFP and is monitoring policy discussions that would further boost SNAP benefits through legislation. By increasing benefits for all households, families can afford to keep food on the table all month long 

Currently, USDA meals plans are assorted into four distinct categories, depending on the associated costs of food items in each group. The four different plans are:  

  • the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP),  
  • the Low-Cost Food Plan,  
  • the Moderate-Cost Food Plan, and  
  • the Liberal Food Plan.  

Since the Great Depression, the United States government has suggested meal plans at varying cost levels to aid consumers with “practical and economic advice on healthful eating.” These plans have come to serve as the basis for many government benefits calculations – from determining food budget allocations for military members to influencing child support payments. While all current food plans have their purpose, the TFP, which marks the most minimal cost plan for food, is essentially only used for determining SNAP allotments.  

In June 2021, USDA released a stunning new report that revealed 88 percent of SNAP recipients face hurdles to a healthy diet. This report reaffirms common knowledge amongst program participants, and further affirms the urgent need to review the TFP. USDA was first ordered to conduct this review of the TFP in the 2018 Farm Bill. While Congress provided USDA until 2022 to comply with the demand, President Biden issued an Executive Order requiring USDA to begin review of the TFP.  

The TFP is riddled with inadequacies and false assumptions regarding what is accessible to low-income families. Through these compounding factors, SNAP households struggle to have enough benefits to feed themselves adequately throughout the month. Some of the most frequently cited reasons for the TFP’s inadequacy are:  

  • Unrealistic assumptions regarding food availability and affordability. The TFP falsely assumes that families across all geographies have equal, consistent access to grocery stores and transportation in order to purchase food. These assumptions reduce the impact of SNAP benefits for participants in areas with higher costs of living or who live in rural and remote settings with higher transportation costs associated with food by failing to account for the unique geographic circumstances that lessen the impact of each SNAP dollar. Moreover, food availability around the country varies drastically and is inherently racialized, due to structural practices that have created community segregation witnessed around the United States. The convergence of lack of food availability and racialized segregation of communities has been described by advocates as “food apartheid.” Failure by USDA to account for food apartheid reinforces inequities of food access for SNAP recipients of color, most especially.  
  • Unreasonable assumptions regarding time and capacity to prepare food. The TFP also uses unrealistic assumptions regarding how frequently individuals and families are cooking from scratch. Not only do these assumptions negatively impact people with disabilities for whom cooking from scratch poses additional physical burdens, but such assumptions do not account for the time requirements for families juggling unpredictable work schedules, lack of access to child care, and many other challenges. During the 2021 RESULTS International Conference, SNAP participants from RESULTS Experts on Poverty cohort shared how these assumptions unfairly target people with disabilities, limiting the impact of SNAP for these households. Put together, each of these assumptions have negative implications for SNAP participants simply seeking to put food on the table for themselves and their families.  
  • Assumptions regarding cooking and food storage facilities. The TFP assumes consistent and equal access to all the resources needed to purchase and prepare foods for every household. However, many families live in places without proper cooking facilities or food safe storage options. These families face the impossible choice of choosing between buying in bulk at lower prices and risk spoilage or paying higher costs for smaller amounts that will be used in its entirety before rotting.  
  • Ignores special dietary needs. Because the TFP relies on uniform consumption habits and lacks necessary variety, it is even more poorly designed to account for individual dietary restrictions or medical requirements. For families with individuals with serious health conditions such as diabetes or Celiac disease, the TFP does not recognize or adjust for the higher associated costs of their required diets. Outside of restrictions, the uniform food list also fails to provide culturally appropriate meals and food options. In turn, many families are forced to disconnect from their culinary heritage in order to stave off hunger through SNAP.  
  • Lacks healthy variety. Analysis by Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) found that USDA market baskets for the TFP are comprised of the same fruits and vegetables, lacking variety as recommended by government nutrition standards.  
  • Impractical lists of food. The TFP is calculated using 15 age-gender market baskets that inaccurately assumes consumption habits for different age ranges. USDA uses these market baskets to create lists of food, including amounts that a family should expect to consume weekly. However, the market baskets for the TFP include quantities that are both improbable purchases from a supermarket and impractical for a family. For example, a family of four under the TFP is expected to eat approximately 2.1 ounces of “all cheese” in a singular week; this is roughly equivalent to two slices of cheese for a family of four per week. Measurements of this manner are unreasonable, in addition to the absurd, minute quantities of food to be shared amongst a family.  
  • Underestimates food waste. USDA calculations for the TFP only allows for five percent of food waste, including inedible portions of food such as bones or peelings. However, recent research found that, at a minimum, all households were wasting at least 8.7 percent of food. This underestimating of food waste in the TFP means SNAP households struggle to have enough food through current calculations, despite research demonstrating that low-income households waste food less than higher income households.   
  • Discourages saving due to asset limits. At the 2021 RESULTS International Conference, SNAP participants in our network shared the negative impact of asset limits on their ability to create savings and move out of poverty. Default asset limits for SNAP requires participants to have less than $2,250 (or $3,500 if a household member is elderly or disabled) in countable assets, such as bank accounts, in order to be eligible to participate in the program. States can relax these assets limits, and many have done so. However, these asset limits still force hundreds of families to choose between saving money and feeding their family each month.  

In addition to the inadequacies described above, RESULTS Experts on Poverty have been outspoken regarding the negative effects of the “benefits cliff”, also known as “the cliff effect”. The “benefits cliff” occurs when participants of anti-poverty programs earn a raise and then discover that they make too much money to continue receiving benefits. Often, these measly increases in compensation do not equate to the hundreds or thousands of dollars of public benefits the family was receiving. The “benefits cliff” not only occurs for families participating in SNAP, but also in other public assistance programs including child care and housing assistance. The inadequacy of the TFP further exacerbates the benefits cliff, forcing many individuals into the precarious situation of choosing between a raise and access to pivotal anti-poverty programs that support their families.  

Currently, the American Rescue Plan has increased SNAP benefits by 15 percent through September 2021. USDA hopes to complete review of the TFP before this increase ends; with advocates hopeful that such a re-evaluation of the TFP will boost benefits for SNAP individuals and families around the country 

Recent Census Household Pulse Survey data shows the power of recovery packages in reducing hunger. After the rollout of additional stimulus for families, hunger (which has a narrower definition than food insecurity) in the United States fell to approximately 11 percent for families with children. This decline masks a slower dip in percentage points amongst Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, however, it is still dramatic. Boosting the benefits of SNAP by addressing the inadequacies of the TFP, will support families at greater risk for food insecurity and hunger to purchase nutritious, culturally relevant foods now and into the future.  

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