A modestly priced meal cost $3.14 in the last quarter of 2022, 15% more than the maximum SNAP benefit.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp program), helps more than 42 million Americans buy healthy food for themselves and their families each year. But the maximum benefit doesn’t always cover the cost of a modestly priced meal, and many families receiving SNAP benefits are still facing food insecurity as a result.
This map compares the maximum SNAP benefit per meal with the county-level average cost of a modestly priced meal in 2022. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) adjusts SNAP benefits every fiscal year to respond to inflation’s impacts on food prices. The map looks at SNAP benefits over two periods: (1) January to September 30, 2022, when the maximum benefit reflected the fiscal year 2022 cost-of-living adjustment, and (2) October 1 to December 31, 2022, when the fiscal year 2023 cost-of-living adjustment took effect. Explore data for your county, or filter by rural-urban continuum codes to see patterns by metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas.
View a previous iteration of this tool to see similar data for 2020 through 2021.
In 2021, the USDA’s reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan increased maximum SNAP benefits by 21 percent, drastically decreasing the share of counties with a gap between the maximum benefit and the cost of a modestly priced meal. Additionally, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government allowed states to provide the maximum SNAP allotment (called “emergency allotments”) to all households. Both of these policy shifts significantly reduced poverty. But by 2022, the emergency allotments had ended for 17 states (and all emergency allotments ended in February 2023), and rising food costs made it harder for many people to feed themselves and their families.
We compare the cost of a modestly priced meal with the maximum SNAP benefit before and after the USDA’s fiscal year 2023 cost-of-living adjustment took effect in 2022 to determine whether the adjustment helped narrow the gap between SNAP benefits and the increasing cost of a meal.
Before the 2023 cost-of-living adjustment (January to September 2022), we find the following:
- The maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the cost of a modestly priced meal in 99 percent of US counties. The benefit covered meal costs in only 27 of the 3,143 counties.
- The five counties with the largest gaps were Leelanau County, Michigan; New York County, New York; Teton County, Idaho; Lincoln County, Wyoming; and Teton County, Wyoming. Each of these counties had a meal price more than 75 percent higher than the maximum SNAP benefit, and Leelanau County had a meal price more than double the maximum benefit. Most of these counties are rural (with a 7 or 9 RUCC) and near tourist areas.
- Nationally, the average meal cost $0.71 (29 percent) more than the average maximum benefit of $2.43, and the maximum benefit fell short of meeting monthly meal costs by $66.03.
- The gap between the cost of a meal and the maximum benefit was larger in urban areas than in rural areas. On average, the cost of a meal exceeded the maximum benefit by $0.76 (31 percent) in urban areas and by $0.48 (20 percent) in rural areas.
The implementation of the 2023 cost-of-living adjustment (which will remain in place until September 30, 2023) in October 2022 had some positive effects:
- The share of counties where the maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the cost of a meal dropped to 78 percent. The number of counties with adequate benefits increased to 687. The five counties with the largest gaps remained the same as before the adjustment.
- Nationally, the amount by which meal costs exceed SNAP benefits decreased. The average meal cost $0.40 (15 percent) more than the average maximum benefit of $2.74. The maximum benefit fell short of meeting monthly meal costs by $37.20.
- The amount by which meal costs exceed SNAP benefits decreased in urban and rural areas, too. In urban areas, a meal cost, on average, $0.45 (17 percent) more than the maximum benefit. In rural areas, a meal cost $0.16 (6 percent) more than the maximum benefit. Visit Urban’s data catalog to see the top 20 rural and urban counties with the largest gaps.
How do we estimate the SNAP benefit per meal?
The maximum SNAP benefit is the same for all counties in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, DC, and is adjusted for Alaska and Hawaii. Because we are interested in how well the maximum benefit can help people afford the cost of a modestly priced meal in their communities, we take an average of the maximum benefit each household size can receive and adjust it for each household size’s share of SNAP enrollees in 2021. We then divide the monthly benefit by the typical number of meals we assume people consume each month. For the 2022 cost-of-living adjustment, we arrive at a per meal maximum benefit of $2.42 for the 48 contiguous states, $3.12 in Alaska, and $4.57 in Hawaii; the national average, weighted by county-level population sizes, is $2.43. For the 2023 cost-of-living adjustment, we arrive at a per meal maximum benefit of $2.73 for the 48 contiguous states, $3.40 in Alaska, and $5.21 in Hawaii; the national average, weighted by county-level population sizes, is $2.74.
How do we calculate the average cost of a meal?
We use weekly reported food expenditures from the Current Population Survey and divide by meals eaten per week. We restrict the responses to those from households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which roughly equals the SNAP eligibility threshold for gross income before deductions. We also restrict responses from people who are food secure, because food-insecure families are likely underspending on food, even for a Thrifty Food Plan meal, because of limited resources. When calculating a national average meal cost across counties, we weight county meal costs by the estimated number of SNAP participants in each county. On average, the national cost of a meal for households meeting our criteria was $3.14 in 2022.
How do we adjust the average meal cost for food prices by county?
We adjust the national cost per meal for the relative prices paid for the Thrifty Food Plan market basket in each county in the US. Our source for a county-level food price index is Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap study, which is based on food price data contributed by NielsenIQ. We then translate the total market basket (including any applicable state and county sales taxes on groceries) into an adjustment factor that can be applied to any dollar amount. This adjustment differs by county, revealing differences in food costs at the county level.
This project, which is part of the Urban Institute’s From Safety Net to Solid Ground initiative, is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation or to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of Urban experts.
We are grateful for the data contributions from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study (supported by Conagra Brands Foundation), which uses food price data contributed by NielsenIQ to estimate county-level meal costs. We especially appreciate the assistance of Adam Dewey and Mark Strayer at Feeding America in updating the analysis and reviewing final products.
View the project on Github.