This blog is the first in a two-part series on the Thrifty Food Plan. 

The monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allotment is based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which was last updated in 2006. Despite that revision, research continues to show that SNAP recipients cannot afford an adequate diet with their SNAP allotment. The inadequacy of SNAP benefits severely limits the program’s ability to have even stronger positive impacts on economic security, food security, health, and well-being. SNAP benefits are inadequate, in part, because they are based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) impractical and flawed TFP.

What is the TFP?
The TFP is one of four food plans developed by USDA. It is the least expensive of the four food plans. According to USDA, the TFP is a “national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost.”

What are the four USDA food plans?
USDA began developing basic food plans for different cost levels in the 1930s to provide “consumers with practical and economic advice on healthful eating.” Currently, USDA has four food plans to represent a diet at home for four different cost levels: the TFP, Low-Cost Food Plan, Moderate-Cost Food Plan, and Liberal Food Plan. According to the latest figures for a family of four (from April 2021), the average monthly cost of these plans is approximately $683, $902, $1121, and $1,362, respectively.

Why should we care about the TFP?
The monthly SNAP allotment is based on the TFP. Every month, USDA calculates the cost of the TFP as well as the other three USDA food plans. The June price of the TFP is used to set the maximum SNAP allotment for the upcoming fiscal year. For more on this June pricing and its implications, read “Why Is the Month of June Important for SNAP?

What are the other USDA food plans used for?
The TFP is generally not used by government agencies for any purpose other than setting SNAP allotments. Government agencies, when determining the cost of food for certain purposes, generally use one of the three higher-cost food plans. For example, the Low-Cost Food Plan is used by bankruptcy courts to determine the amount of income to allocate to food costs, and the Liberal Food Plan is used by the military to set the food allowance for service members. All three higher-cost food plans also are used to determine alimony, child support, and foster care guidelines or payments.

How are the USDA food plans developed?
Every so many years, USDA updates the food plans by creating market baskets for 15 different age and gender groups. For example, each plan has a market basket for children 2 to 3 years old, another market basket for females 12 to 13 years old, another market basket for males 12 to 13 years old, and so forth. Each market basket lists the number of pounds per week allotted for subgroups of grains, vegetables, fruits, milk products, meat and beans, and other foods. For instance, the TFP market basket for a child 2 to 3 years old includes 0.72 pounds of dark green vegetables a week.

The market baskets are based on rather sophisticated mathematical models that are intended to account for actual food consumption, actual food prices, updated food composition data, and current dietary recommendations, while working within the constraint of maintaining the inflation-adjusted cost of the prior plans. This is an important point — the purchasing power of the food plans, including the TFP — has yet to be increased.

The last revision to the TFP was in 2006 and a long overdue re-evaluation is being undertaken at USDA right now. The other three USDA food plans were last revised in 2007.

How does the TFP differ from the other USDA food plans?
Compared to the TFP, the three higher-cost food plans have much more generous budgets, as shown in the figures above. The specific food quantities in the plans also differ, with the total pounds of food per week in a market basket increasing with the cost of the plan. In addition, the three higher-cost food plans allow for more food choices and variety. As a result, the higher-cost food plans allow for healthy foods that are not the cheapest options in a food group, unlike the TFP (e.g., more fresh fish instead of canned tuna, more berries instead of bananas).

What are the weaknesses of the TFP?
Check out part 2 of “Thrifty Food Plan 101” to learn about the flaws with the TFP.

This blog is based on the Food Research & Action Center’s comprehensive analysis of the Thrifty Food Plan, Replacing the Thrifty Food Plan in Order to Provide Adequate Allotments for SNAP Beneficiaries.