Part 1 of this series provided an overview of the Thrifty Food Plan and the three other food plans developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

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 are the TFP’s weaknesses?
Nearly a decade ago, the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) conducted a comprehensive review of the 2006 TFP and outlined the most substantial weaknesses of the plan and its use in SNAP. These weaknesses are still relevant today given the inaction, until recently, on revising the plan.

  • The TFP includes impractical lists of foods. The TFP market baskets are in terms of pounds of food per week. To FRAC’s knowledge, the 2006 market baskets were not translated into practical shopping lists or menus for consumers. The market baskets also contain such small quantities of some foods, especially prepared foods, that the amounts are impractical and often meaningless for normal use. For instance, the weekly market basket for a reference family of four allots approximately 0.64 ounces of “frozen or refrigerated entrees” and approximately 2.1 ounces of “all cheese,” which, respectively, translates to about two-thirds of a fish stick and two slices of cheese for a family of four for a week. USDA intends for the weekly market baskets to be used as monthly market baskets, which would still only amount to about three fish sticks and eight slices of cheese for a family of four for a month.
  • The TFP lacks the variety called for in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For example, fruits in the baskets are comprised mostly of apples, bananas, oranges/orange juice, and watermelon; the primary vegetables include potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and dark leafy greens; and the main fish are canned tuna and canned salmon. The overall lack of variety over time leads to a potentially monotonous, unpalatable diet, and is inconsistent with federal dietary guidance.
  • The TFP unrealistically assumes adequate facilities and time for food preparation. Inherent in the TFP market baskets is the assumption that people have adequate and safe facilities for food storage and preparation. The reality is that some low-income families cannot afford the upfront costs for appliances or utensils that the TFP assumes they have, or they may struggle to pay utility bills. In addition, the TFP frequently is criticized for requiring an unrealistic amount of time for food preparation (often from scratch), including the time necessary to shop for food at the right price, compare prices, prepare food, and clean up after a meal. USDA reports incorporating more convenience foods and “somewhat” fewer foods prepared from scratch in the 2006 revision compared to the 1999 version; however, a number of research studies have demonstrated that the time needed to prepare foods consistent with the TFP is higher than social norms and practices.
  • The TFP unrealistically assumes food availability. Even in normal commercial environments, the TFP market baskets are so constrained that purchasing all or most of the components can be very difficult. Research shows that obtaining an adequate diet with the TFP is challenging because of the minimal availability of stores offering foods to fill a TFP market basket. This is especially true for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, low-fat dairy products, fish, and lean meat.
  • The TFP unrealistically assumes food affordability. Part of the reason why SNAP benefits are insufficient for many participants is that healthy food to meet the TFP guidelines, if even available, is often more expensive in low-income communities. This is particularly true for fruits and vegetables. As a result of food affordability issues, households with limited resources to buy enough food may try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing inexpensive, calorie-rich foods that are filling.
  • The TFP underestimates food waste. Since the early 1980s, USDA has used a food waste factor of 5 percent in the TFP market baskets to account for food lost to spoilage, spillage, or plate waste. (The food waste factors for the three higher-cost USDA Food Plans range from 10 to 30 percent.) The current food waste factor for the TFP is outdated and too low. Although any level of food waste is undesirable, it is unrealistic to ignore this issue given the nature of food shopping and preparation that result in some waste for households.
  • The TFP unrealistically assumes adequate, affordable transportation. Meeting the TFP guidelines is especially challenging for the many households in low-income communities without vehicle access. Shopping frequency may increase – and the ability to buy in bulk decrease — because of limits on how much can be carried when walking or using public transit. Some consumers, especially in rural communities, also may be limited to one large shopping trip a month when they buy the majority of their monthly food purchases. This requires ample food storage space and may restrict the types of products that can be purchased. Furthermore, transportation costs cut into the already limited resources of SNAP households, and these costs can be substantial.
  • The TFP is exacerbated in its inadequacy by SNAP benefit calculations. One problem is that the timing of the annual SNAP cost of living adjustment by definition means that the actual SNAP allotment is almost always less than the TFP market basket cost. While the SNAP benefit allotment is adjusted for inflation each year, the increases come only after a time lag, adjusted in October for inflation through the prior June. Furthermore, SNAP benefit allotments are calculated based on household income, resources, and size. The many families with earnings, Social Security, or other forms of income are assumed to be able to use some of that income for food, so they receive less than the maximum SNAP allotment. This adjustment is in theory logical, but the computation of the share of a family’s income available for food is so flawed that it frequently leads to unjust outcomes for those with high medical bills or shelter costs. The end result is that SNAP households often are assumed to have money for food that actually is going to medical or shelter costs.
  • The TFP costs more than the SNAP allotment in many parts of the country. The TFP is based on a national average of food prices, but food prices vary widely across the nation. As a result, higher food prices in many communities — especially urban areas — make it difficult to meet the TFP’s guidelines and afford a healthy diet because SNAP consumers have less purchasing power with their program benefits. In short, SNAP beneficiaries who are trying to stay within the TFP’s boundaries will necessarily fall short if faced with prices that are higher than the national average.
  • The TFP ignores special dietary needs. The TFP market baskets do not account for the additional nutritional needs of pregnant or breastfeeding women, persons engaging in heavy physical labor, children and adults engaging in vigorous physical activity, or those with food allergies or otherwise requiring special medical diets (e.g., gluten-free, low-sodium, nut-free, dairy-free). This means that the amount or types of food in the market baskets likely are insufficient or inappropriate for a significant number of households.
  • The TFP has remained cost-neutral in each recent revision. The purchasing power of the TFP has yet to be increased by USDA, even though the opportunity presented itself when the market baskets were revised in 1983, 1999, and 2006. For these revisions, the same neutral-cost constraint was applied. As a result, the most recent TFP revision attempted to incorporate new data and reflect new national dietary recommendations, but was revised only within the limits of the same (inflation-adjusted) cost of the previous TFP market baskets from decades earlier. These constrained reviews have compounded the degree to which the TFP package fails to reflect what families need.

FRAC fully supports the Biden administration’s current efforts to revise the outdated and impractical TFP so that it better meets the needs and realities of SNAP beneficiaries as they obtain an adequate, nutritious, and palatable diet. This revision is long overdue and a critical step in addressing the inadequacy of SNAP benefits.

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.