Ron Pollack was the Founding Executive Director of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). He served as the organization’s CEO from 1970 to 1980, and he currently serves as the Secretary-Treasurer on FRAC’s Executive Committee. Mr. Pollack also served as the Dean of the Antioch University School of Law, and, for more than three decades, was the Founding Executive Director of Families USA, an advocacy organization promoting universal health care coverage.
On October 1, low-income households will experience a huge upgrade in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which originally was named the Food Stamp Program. At that time, average SNAP food aid to impoverished households will increase by approximately 27 percent above pre-pandemic levels. It is the most significant enhancement of the program in more than four decades.
This improvement is long overdue. Indeed, efforts to secure a comparable increase in program benefits were initiated, through litigation, literally 50 years ago.
The lawsuit challenging the inadequacy of food stamp benefits was brought in 1971 by FRAC, litigating (as a class action) on behalf of nine low-income families, the City of New York, the State of Pennsylvania, and the National Welfare Rights Organization. The lawsuit sought to secure the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) compliance with new, explicit program objectives established by Congress.
Prior to 1971, the Food Stamp Act, in its relevant part, directed USDA’s Secretary to administer the program so that low-income households were to be “provided with an opportunity more nearly to obtain a nutritionally adequate diet through the issuance to them of a coupon allotment.” In response to advocacy by anti-hunger leaders, the Act in 1971 was significantly amended.
With respect to the size of food stamp benefits, the legislative change struck the words “more nearly” from the relevant portion of the statute. As a result, the Secretary’s legal obligation was to provide eligible program beneficiaries “with an opportunity to obtain a nutritionally adequate diet.”
The lawsuit (Rodway v. USDA) sought to secure the Department’s compliance with that new congressional requirement.
At the time the lawsuit was litigated, food stamp benefits were determined based on the cost of the so-called “Economy Food Plan” (EFP) — the least expensive of several USDA-devised plans. Although the statute did not specify that the EFP should be the basis for providing food stamp allotments, USDA’s regulations predicated program benefits on the costs of the EFP for a hypothetical family of four (including a man and woman 20–35 years of age each, a child 6– 9 years old, and another child 9 –12 years old), with benefit adjustments based on family size.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1975 invalidated the food stamp allotment regulations for violating the Administrative Procedure Act. Specifically, it held that USDA’s coupon allotment regulations unlawfully failed to provide notice about its proposed rule-making, failed to solicit public comments about the proposal, and failed to justify its decision. The court ordered the USDA Secretary to develop new allotment rules.
The court also provided guidance about the expected new rules. It stated that, under the newly amended law, the program was intended “to shift from supplementing the diets of low-income households to guaranteeing those households the opportunity for an adequate diet” (emphasis in original text). It further indicated that a new set of benefits “can be sustained only if the Secretary can show that such a system will deliver coupons to substantially all recipients sufficient to allow them to purchase a nutritionally adequate diet.”
In effect, the court prompted USDA to develop an allotment system that, based on the real-life circumstances of program beneficiaries, would enable them to purchase an adequate diet. Such a system, of course, would not assume that beneficiaries have the same food-related expertise as nutritionists or that program beneficiaries’ food consumption patterns would be radically and unrealistically altered.
As a result of the court ruling, USDA eliminated the EFP. In its place, the Department created the so-called “Thrifty Food Plan” (TFP). In so doing, however, USDA decided that the new TFP should result in the same food stamp coupon allotments as the discarded EFP. Despite this cynical and relatively meaningless change, the litigation became moot because the 1977 food stamp amendments explicitly approved the use of the TFP for establishing food stamp benefits.
Thankfully the new and improved SNAP allotments, which are to be implemented on October 1 are being based on a careful review of the TFP and its effectiveness in providing an adequate diet — not a pre determined retention of previous benefit levels. The review was mandated by the 2018 Farm Bill and an Executive Order from President Biden. USDA’s review considered “current food prices, what Americans typically eat, dietary guidance, and the nutrients in food items.”
This overdue and much-needed change will undoubtedly improve the health and well-being of low-income households across the country.