Does SNAP Cover the Cost of a Meal in Your County?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides monthly food budget assistance to more than 42 million eligible, low-income people. But even the maximum SNAP benefit falls short of low-income meal costs in 99 percent of US counties.

This map compares the maximum SNAP benefit per meal with the cost of a low-income meal in 2015. Hover over a county to see the average cost of a low-income meal and the gap between that cost and the SNAP benefit, which is the same for all counties in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, DC.a Click on a county to zoom in on the state.

 
Key findings
  • The SNAP benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of US continental counties and DC.
  • The 20 counties with the largest gap between average low-income meal cost and SNAP benefit in 2015 include high-cost urban areas—such as New York, San Francisco, and Alexandria, VA—as well as smaller rural counties, including some with significant tourism sites—such as Blaine County, ID; El Dorado County, CA; and Leelanau County, MI. In these 20 counties, average low-income meal costs range from $3.13 to $4.39—68 to 136 percent higher than the SNAP per meal benefit.
  • Nationally, the maximum SNAP benefit falls short of meeting monthly low-income meal costs by $46.50 per person. Among the 10 percent of counties with the highest average meal costs, the monthly shortfall is $82.04 per person.
About the data

How do we estimate the SNAP benefit per meal?

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, adjusted for the proportion of each household size among those enrolled in SNAP in 2015. We then divide the monthly benefit by the typical number of meals we assume people consume each month (3 meals a day x 31 days, or 93 meals).

We arrive at a per meal maximum benefit of $1.86. This overstates the per meal amount available to SNAP participants who do not qualify for the maximum benefit. In 2015, the year of our analysis, about 40 percent of SNAP households received the maximum monthly allotment because they had zero net income.

The amount of SNAP benefits each person or family receives depends on such factors 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 estimate the amount they spend on food each week. We have chosen to restrict the responses we use to individuals in 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 have also chosen to use only responses from people who are “food secure” based on their answers to certain questions in the Current Population Survey. Our reasoning is that “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 we expect 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 is $2.36 in 2015.

We exclude Alaska, Hawaii, 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. 

How do we adjust the average meal cost for food prices by county?

We adjust the national per meal cost for the relative prices paid for the Thrifty Food Plan market basket in each county in the US (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). The Thrifty Food Plan is a “minimal-cost” nutritionally adequate food plan developed by US Department of Agriculture that is used 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 Nielsen to estimate the local meal cost by county. The total market basket (including any applicable state and county taxes) 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.

 

For more information about our methods, see the full report. You can download the data here.

This project is part of the Urban Institute's From Safety Net to Solid Ground initiative. Read more about the initiative here.

 

This project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with additional support from the Annie E. Casey 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, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, or the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of Urban experts.