More than 42 million Americans participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp program), but the maximum benefit falls short of a modestly priced meal in many US counties.
On October 1, 2021, the US Department of Agriculture increased the maximum SNAP benefit 21 percent when it updated the Thrifty Food Plan, which estimates the cost of a healthy, budget-conscious diet. This increase helped close the gap between SNAP benefits and meal costs, but it did not close it for everyone. Before the increase, the maximum SNAP benefit fell short of meal costs in 96 percent of US counties; after the increase, that share fell to 21 percent.
This map compares the maximum SNAP benefit per meal with the county-level average cost of a modestly priced meal in 2020. Use the drop-down menu to see SNAP benefits with the recent 21 percent increase, with the temporary 15 percent increase, or without an increase before December 2020. You can click on a county to zoom in or filter by Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCCs) to see patterns by metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas.
In 2020, before the change to the Thrifty Food Plan, we found the following:
The maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the average cost of a modestly priced meal in 96 percent of US counties.
The 20 counties with the largest gap between maximum SNAP benefits and modestly priced meals include high-cost urban areas, such as New York and San Francisco, as well as smaller rural counties (often those with resort towns), such as Blaine County, Idaho; El Dorado County, California; and Leelanau County, Michigan. In these 20 counties, the costs of modestly priced meals range from $3.23 to $6.16, or 64 to 213 percent higher than the maximum SNAP benefit per meal.
Nationally, the maximum SNAP benefit fell short of meeting monthly meal costs by $39.99 per person. Among the 10 percent of counties with the highest modestly priced meals, the monthly shortfall is $69.75 per person.
After the 21 percent increase to the Thrifty Food Plan, we observe the following:
Seventy-nine percent of households will receive adequate maximum SNAP benefits. However, a gap still exists in 21 percent of US counties.
Gaps persist in rural and urban counties, across the entire RUCC spectrum.
On average, for counties with gaps, the maximum benefit falls short of an average modestly price meal by 23 cents, meaning the average cost of a modestly priced meal is 10 percent higher than maximum SNAP benefits.
In urban areas with a gap, the average holds true, with a 23-cent gap in benefit adequacy. But in rural areas with a gap, the gap is 27 cents, meaning modestly priced meals cost 12 percent more than maximum benefits.
Leelanau County, Michigan, has the largest percentage gap and is on the most rural end of the RUCC spectrum.
ABOUT THE DATA
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. The Food and Nutrition Service adjusts the maximum SNAP benefit values separately for Alaska and Hawaii. We exclude the US Virgin Islands and Guam because of data limitations for food prices and because SNAP benefits in these areas are adjusted to reflect local costs.
Because we are interested in how well the maximum benefit can help people meet the actual cost of a low-income meal in their community, we take an average of the maximum benefit each household size can receive and adjust it for the share of each household size among those enrolled in SNAP in 2020. We then divide the monthly benefit by the typical number of meals we assume people consume each month (3 meals a day × 31 days, or 93 meals).
We arrive at a per meal maximum benefit of $1.97 for the 48 contiguous states. In fiscal year 2019, 36 percent of SNAP households received the maximum monthly allotment because they had zero net income. For other SNAP participants, the actual amount per meal is less than the maximum benefit assuming participants are expected to spend one-third of their net income on food. Consequently, those who do not receive the maximum benefit are assumed to have the resources to purchase the maximum benefit. We perform the same calculation for Alaska and Hawaii and find a maximum benefit per meal of $3.03 in Alaska and of $3.66 in Hawaii.
The amount of SNAP benefits each person or family receives depends on factors such as household size, income level, and expense deductions that may lower the income used to determine the benefit amount.
How do we calculate average cost of a meal?
We use the Current Population Survey, which asks people to report the amount they usually spend on food each week. We have restricted the responses we use to those from households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is roughly equivalent to the SNAP eligibility threshold for gross income before deductions.
We also chose to use only responses from people who are food secure. Food-insecure families are likely underspending on food because of limited resources. We divide weekly food expenditures for respondents by the typical number of meals people consume in a week. When calculating a national average meal cost across counties, we weight the 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 $2.41 in 2020.
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 (Alaska and Hawaii were added in the 2021 update). The Thrifty Food Plan is a “minimal-cost” nutritionally adequate food plan developed by US Department of Agriculture to determine monthly SNAP benefit allotments.
Our source for a county-level food price index is Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap study, which incorporates food price data contributed by NielsenIQ to estimate the local meal cost by county. The total market basket (including any applicable state and county sales taxes on groceries) is then translated 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.
Research report: How Far Do SNAP Benefits Fall Short of Covering the Cost of a Meal?
Data download: View the data on Urban’s Data Catalog.
About the data
In these analyses, we use data that only account for the base increase announced for the Thrifty Food Plan. We do not account for future inflation adjustments and their effect on SNAP benefits.
For more information about our analysis and for a full list of RUCC descriptions, please see our technical appendix.
Rural-Urban Continuum Codes
According to the US Department of Agriculture, RUCCs distinguish metropolitan counties by the population size of their metropolitan area and distinguish nonmetropolitan counties by their degree of urbanization and adjacency to a metropolitan area. Each county in the US is assigned one of nine codes, which are described as follows:
Counties in metropolitan areas of 1 million people or more
Counties in metropolitan areas of 250,000 to 1 million people
Counties in metropolitan areas of fewer than 250,000 people
Urban population of 20,000 or more, adjacent to a metropolitan area
Urban population of 20,000 or more, not adjacent to a metropolitan area
Urban population of 2,500 to 19,999, adjacent to a metropolitan area
Urban population of 2,500 to 19,999, not adjacent to a metropolitan area
Completely rural, or urban population of less than 2,500, adjacent to a metropolitan area
Completely rural, or urban population of less than 2,500, not adjacent to a metropolitan area
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 incorporates food price data contributed by NielsenIQ to estimate the local meal cost. We especially appreciate the thought partnership of Adam Dewey, Robert Campbell, and Jadi Romero at Feeding America in updating the analysis and reviewing the final products.
DESIGN Christina Baird
DEVELOPMENT Ben Chartoff
EDITING Michael Marazzi