Does SNAP Cover the Cost of a Meal in Your County?
More than 43 million Americans participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp program). But even the maximum benefit in 2020 fell short of low-income meal costs in 96 percent of US counties.
In December 2020, Congress approved a temporary 15 percent increase in maximum SNAP benefits; the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021 extended that increase to September 2021. But even with this boost, the maximum SNAP benefit still falls short in 41 percent of US counties.
This map compares the maximum SNAP benefit per meal with the average cost of a low-income meal in 2020 with and without the 15 percent increase. Click on a county to zoom in and see more details.
In 2020, before the 15 percent increase, we found the following:
- The maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 96 percent of US counties.
- The 20 counties with the largest gap between maximum SNAP benefits and the average cost of a low-income meal include high-cost urban areas, such as New York and San Francisco, as well as smaller rural counties with resort towns, such as Blaine County, ID; El Dorado County, CA; and Leelanau County, MI. In these 20 counties, average low-income meal costs range from $3.23 to $6.16, or 64 to 213 percent higher than the SNAP benefit per meal.
- Nationally, the maximum SNAP benefit fell short of meeting monthly low-income meal costs by $39.99 per person. Among the 10 percent of counties with the highest average meal costs, the monthly shortfall is $69.75 per person.
After the temporary 15 percent increase, we found a few changes:
- The maximum SNAP benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 40.5 percent of US counties.
- On average, even with a 15 percent increase in benefits, the gap between maximum SNAP benefits and the average cost of a low-income meal is 13 cents. In New York City, increased SNAP benefits still fall short by $1.73 per low-income meal.
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.
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.