June 7, 2019

By Heather Hartline-Grafton, Senior Nutrition Policy and Research Analyst, and Ellen Vollinger, Legal/Food Stamp Director

As it does every June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this month will calculate the cost of a bare-bones market basket (the Thrifty Food Plan), which will serve as the basis for setting the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit allotment for the fiscal year starting in October 2019. Because of flawed assumptions behind the plan, the USDA’s pricing will leave SNAP households without enough benefits to afford a month’s worth of nutritious food.

FRAC’s analysis and review of available research identifies specific weaknesses and limitations underpinning the Thrifty Food Plan. The plan:

  • includes impractical lists of foods;
  • lacks the variety called for in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans;
  • unrealistically assumes adequate facilities and time for food preparation;
  • unrealistically assumes food availability, affordability, and adequate transportation;
  • ignores special dietary needs; and, most notably,
  • costs more than the SNAP allotment in many parts of the country.

Consistent with the latter point, an Urban Institute study published last year concluded, “[T]he SNAP benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of U.S. continental counties and the District of Columbia.”

Why does it matter? The harm from SNAP benefit inadequacy is evident in studies that examine end-of-the-month effects – i.e., the adverse impacts on dietary quality, health, behavior, and learning when households run low on monthly SNAP benefits. As FRAC’s recent brief on SNAP benefit adequacy points out, these and other adverse impacts can be mitigated by increasing SNAP benefit allotments (as seen with the improved outcomes during the temporary SNAP benefits boost under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

The United States doesn’t have to accept the negative outcomes that come with insufficient SNAP support. Policymakers have opportunities in the months ahead to make changes to improve the adequacy of SNAP benefits.

First, the 2018 Farm Bill has directed the USDA to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan by 2020 and every five years thereafter. Reevaluations and revisions will be based on current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns, and dietary guidance.

Second, 111 House Members have joined Representative Alma Adams (D-NC) in sponsoring a bill (H.R. 1368) that would improve SNAP benefits, including by replacing the Thrifty Food Plan with the more adequate Low Cost Food Plan as the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

Advocates also can make a difference by:

  • thanking Members of Congress who have sponsored H.R. 1368 and encouraging other Members to support the bill;
  • working with FRAC on administrative advocacy when the USDA moves forward on its Thrifty Food Plan reviews; and
  • reading FRAC’s research briefs and educating people about SNAP benefit inadequacy, including by taking the SNAP Challenge.

This June, and in future Junes, let’s take the measures necessary to ensure SNAP benefits are sufficient enough to better promote food security, health, and well-being.

Keep up with the latest Capitol Hill activity related to improving SNAP benefit adequacy with FRAC’s Legislative Action Center.