June 14, 2019

cars on flooded streetJune, the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane season, is a good time to highlight disaster preparedness and the role of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in helping to reduce hunger and food insecurity before, during, and after a disaster.

There are several recent examples of SNAP helping to maintain access to nutritious food for families and communities in disaster situations. In 2017, in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS) provided SNAP replacement benefits to more than 2.4 million households. In 2018, FNS-approved SNAP benefits for disaster victims totaled more than $1.4 billion.

This year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), states, retailers, and Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) processors have provided temporary SNAP benefits to households devastated by flooding, particularly in the Midwest. The USDA quickly approved state requests to provide Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) and/or SNAP replacement benefits to impacted victims in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, providing responsive relief that did not have to depend on special action by Congress.

Unfortunately, the timely aid that SNAP can provide post-disaster was not provided to another U.S. area hit by a natural catastrophe: Puerto Rico.

The U.S. territory’s version of SNAP, NAP (Nutrition Assistance Program), is a block grant, not an entitlement program. Many months of delays and cuts in Puerto Rico’s NAP food benefits occurred before Congress and the Administration provided more post-Hurricane Maria funds for the program.

SNAP’s structure allows it to be responsive during disasters and also when there is increased need due to an economic downturn. A recent New York Times article reminds us that economic need increases in real time, often before experts can identify a situation as an official recession. The good news is that SNAP aid can quickly kick in to help the newly jobless, with or without special action by Congress or economists declaring the country as being within an economic recession.

One structural aspect of SNAP, however, does undercut the program’s effectiveness in promoting food security during the country’s ups and downs: the USDA bases SNAP benefits on the government’s most meager food package, the Thrifty Food Plan. The plan, inherently, does not adequately support a healthy diet for Americans month to month. Heather Hartline-Grafton, FRAC’s Senior Nutrition Policy and Research Analyst, has synthesized research on how SNAP benefit adequacy suffers when benefit allotments are set using the Thrifty Food Plan.

A more appropriate basis for calculating SNAP benefits is the Low-Cost Meal Plan. Check out the Living Wage Calculator prepared by experts at MIT, which assumes the Low-Cost Meal Plan as the barometer to calculate and price the money people need for food purchases.

Backing the Low-Cost Meal Plan as a better alternative to the Thrifty Food Plan, Representative Alma Adams and 111 Members of Congress have sponsored H.R. 1368 to base SNAP benefits on the former.

Visit FRAC’s Legislative Action Center, and join us in supporting H.R. 1368 and telling policymakers that it’s time to get SNAP delivered at the right dosage during the nation’s good and bad times.