Historic increase in food stamps benefits is on the way

The boost, which advocates say is long overdue, stems from an update to the Thrifty Food Plan, which determines the benefit amounts of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps. The plan estimates the cost of groceries needed to provide a budget-conscious diet for a family of four.

The increase comes as part of a USDA review of the food stamp program required under the 2018 Farm Bill. Congress ordered the agency to re-evaluate the plan by 2022 — and every five years thereafter. It was last adjusted in 2006.

Under the revision, which is permanent, beneficiaries will see a $36 hike in average monthly benefits. They received $121 per person before the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic sparked a jump in food stamps participation as hunger grew nationwide. More than 42 million people were enrolled in the program in May, up from nearly 37 million in February 2020.
As part of its coronavirus relief packages, Congress enacted a temporary 15% boost to benefits, which is set to expire at the end of September. Lawmakers also raised enrollees’ food stamp allotment to the maximum amount for their family size during the pandemic — a move President Joe Biden extended to an additional 25 million people in very low-income households who originally didn’t receive the additional benefits. And Congress augmented other nutrition programs, particularly to help feed children who were not going to school in person.
The President also asked the agency to look into revising its Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the current cost of a healthy basic diet, as part of an executive order soon after he took office in January.

Extra help from the federal government has gone a long way to helping struggling Americans put food on the table, particularly as inflation and the cost of food rises.

The number of households with children who sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat over the past seven days fell to just over 10%, its lowest level since the start of the pandemic, after the first monthly installment of the child tax credit was sent in July, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

Long overdue

Consumer advocates, however, have said for years that the Thrifty Food Plan is outdated. It makes unrealistic assumptions about food affordability and availability today, as well as about the time families have to shop and prepare meals, they argue.

The average cost of a meal in the US is $2.41 — 22% higher than maximum food stamp benefits, according to a recent Urban Institute report. In 2020, the maximum benefit did not cover the cost of a modestly priced meal in 96% of US counties.

The value of the plan has been adjusted only for inflation since it was introduced in 1975, while there have been major changes to nutrition science, the food supply, consumption patterns and participants’ circumstances since then. Nearly 9 in 10 participants face barriers to providing themselves and their families with nutritious food, with the biggest one being cost, the USDA said in June.

The re-evaluation is an important step, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president at Share Our Strength, which seeks to end childhood hunger and poverty.

“The updated Thrifty Food Plan better reflects the way families live today, where working households do not have unlimited hours to prepare food from scratch and modern dietary guidelines advise a wider variety of foods, particularly leafy greens and lean proteins, which can be more costly,” said Davis, noting that nearly 90% of SNAP recipients say their benefits run out before the end of the month.

Republican lawmakers, however, are questioning the USDA’s update. The GOP leaders on the House and Senate agriculture committees wrote Friday to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro to request that the Government Accountability Office review the agency’s methodologies.

“The complexity of this process, and its likely impacts, create an urgent need for scrutiny, particularly on the heels of significant nutrition-related pandemic spending that has continued without rigorous oversight,” wrote Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas and Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania.


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