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June 12, 2018

How reevaluating the Thrifty Food Plan can improve SNAP

June 12, 2018

This week, the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is scheduled to mark up a reauthorization of the nation’s Farm Bill, which takes a different approach than the version that failed a House vote last month.

The Senate bill reportedly has bipartisan support as it moves into committee hearings, in large part because of the absence of significant changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), such as expanding and tightening work requirements and largely eliminating broad-based categorical eligibility. 

But the House version of the Farm Bill reauthorization, H.R. 2, included a provision to update the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which is the basis for determining the monetary value of SNAP benefits. This proposal could benefit families that rely on SNAP to help pay for food, where, as our previous research has shown, the program falls short in covering the costs of a low-income meal in virtually every US county.

Our recent analysis of the average cost of a low-income meal shows that the maximum SNAP benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of US continental counties and the District of Columbia. The average cost of a low-income meal is $2.36, 27 percent higher than the SNAP maximum benefit per meal of $1.86. Nationally, monthly SNAP benefits fall short of the cost of an average low-income meal by $46.50 per person.

Why the current Thrifty Food Plan needs an update

The TFP is the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) representation of a “minimal-cost” nutritionally adequate food plan that varies by household size and composition. It reflects a set of “market baskets” the USDA developed for different age and gender categories that specify assumptions about dietary needs, actual consumption patterns, and food prices. The TFP is the basis for the calculation of SNAP benefits.

A provision included in the House version of the Farm Bill that is absent from the Senate version calls for the USDA secretary to reevaluate the TFP by 2022 and at five-year intervals after that.

The TFP was last revised in 2006, when the USDA determined the TFP could still be achieved at the same inflation-adjusted cost as the previous plan. But a 2013 report from an expert committee at the Institute of Medicine concluded that the benefit design needs to be revisited for multiple reasons, including the failure to address geographic variations in cost.

Although people often think of high food costs as an issue for big cities, the SNAP meal cost shortfall is universal. Our analysis confirms that food prices affect a wide variety of communities—small and large, urban and rural, and in all geographic regions—and it should be a concern to policymakers and stakeholders.  

Counties with the highest food prices—a total of 310 counties, or the 10 percent of counties with the largest gap between average low-income meal costs and the SNAP maximum per meal benefit—span 40 states and Washington, DC.

Improving underlying data sources can improve SNAP’s goal to reduce food insecurity

We tend to think of policy as shaped by specific legislative choices, but important changes often occur when we don’t pay attention to the underlying assumptions and data used in a program. Failure to periodically examine the costs of obtaining a nutritious diet and provide transparent information about the fundamental data used to shape a program that serves more than 40 million people erodes SNAP’s ability to reduce food insecurity in most communities.

Building in a regular schedule for evaluating geographic differences in food price data, dietary needs, and purchasing patterns represents an opportunity to practice good program evaluation and positions the USDA to be a more effective steward of SNAP.

A man walks into a store advertising that they accept SNAP benefits on April 14, 2013 in Belle Glade, Fl. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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