Today the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a landmark change in the way Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are established for more than 42 million people who use these benefits to help put food on their tables. Beginning October 1, 2021, the value of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which is the federal government’s representation of a minimal-cost nutritionally adequate diet and the basis for calculating monthly SNAP benefits, will be permanently increased by 21 percent and updated periodically for inflation.
Realigning the TFP to better reflect the types and cost of food people need to eat a healthier diet is long overdue. Before the new policy change, we estimated that the maximum SNAP benefit, which is the amount available to people deemed to have zero net income for food, fell short of covering the average cost of a modestly priced meal in 96 percent of US counties in 2020. We also found that the temporary 15 percent benefit boost authorized under the American Rescue Plan cut the percent of counties with that gap to 41 percent. We estimate that the 21 percent increase in the maximum benefit announced today will reduce the share of counties with a SNAP meal cost gap to only 21 percent.
The timing of the USDA’s announcement is vital, because the temporary 15 percent boost to the maximum SNAP benefit authorized under the American Rescue Plan expires at the end of September. Without this change to the TFP, families receiving SNAP benefits would have faced a significant reduction in resources to buy food, even as the pandemic persists, the economic recovery is uneven, and grocery store and supermarket food prices continue to increase at a higher rate than the average over the last 20 years.
The TFP has not been revised since 2006, when the USDA determined the TFP could still be achieved at the same inflation-adjusted cost as previous plans dating back to 1975. But a 2013 report from an expert committee at the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council concluded that the benefit design needed to be overhauled for multiple reasons, including a failure to address geographic variations in cost, which affect both urban and rural areas.
A strong evidence base shows that SNAP improves food security and reduces poverty, and recent research suggests people who participate in SNAP have lower health care costs. Unfortunately, the chronic inadequacy of SNAP benefits has limited the program’s ability to address one of the nation’s most persistent public health challenges: consistently affording food needed to sustain health and well-being. Though many food-insecure households remain ineligible for SNAP, today’s policy change is a huge step forward in maximizing the effectiveness of one of the nation’s most powerful antihunger strategies.
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