June is an important month for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Each June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prices the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) — a bare-bones market basket — to calculate the maximum SNAP allotment for the upcoming federal fiscal year (which runs from October through September). USDA considers this TFP pricing in June a cost-of-living adjustment for SNAP benefits.

However, in reality, the SNAP allotment during the year does not reflect      current prices but the price of the TFP from between four to 16 months earlier. Put another way, a SNAP recipient’s benefits in September 2022 (yes, 2022!) will be based on the cost of this month’s TFP. If food prices rise in that time, as they have been doing in recent months, SNAP households will have less purchasing power with their program benefits.

This lag in timing is one reason why SNAP benefits are inadequate, as pointed out by FRAC, other anti-hunger advocates, and an Institute of Medicine committee. There are additional reasons why SNAP benefits are inadequate as well, including the many flaws with the TFP itself.

An analysis by FRAC outlined the most substantial weaknesses of the TFP and its use in SNAP. 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 and affordability;
  • underestimates food waste;
  • unrealistically assumes adequate, affordable transportation;
  • costs more than the SNAP allotment in many parts of the country; and
  • ignores special dietary needs.

 As noted in FRAC’s report, the implications of these weaknesses for SNAP beneficiaries are that

… there is no margin of error included within the TFP, which demands perfection across a range of household tasks, access to resources, and other attributes. Everything must be perfectly aligned for the TFP to work as intended      — a person needs access to a store (or multiple stores to bargain hunt) with a wide variety of foods at very competitive prices; transportation to the store; adequate resources to use at the store throughout the month; adequate and reliable storage space and cooking equipment; sufficient time for food preparation; less waste and spoilage than is commonly accepted as the norm; and so on. Low-income households have no buffers when things go — even slightly — off this course, as they typically do in one respect or another in the real world for families of all income levels. More and more demands for perfection are made on the low-income family. The result is a type of Potemkin village: a TFP that is an artificially constructed model that obscures the reality of the impossible struggles of low-income people.

The TFP was last updated in 2006. The positive impact of that revision was undercut when USDA applied a cost-neutral test for making adjustments. Since the 2006 update, research shows that SNAP recipients cannot afford the plan and an adequate diet with their SNAP allotment. SNAP is a profoundly important program, with well-documented benefits. However, the inadequacy of SNAP benefits severely limits the program’s ability to do even more.

USDA now has an opportunity to revise the TFP so that it more accurately reflects the true cost and realities of obtaining an adequate, nutritious, and palatable diet. Congress instructed USDA to update the TFP in the 2018 Farm Bill, yet no action was taken. But earlier this year, President Biden issued an Executive Order that, among other matters, directed USDA to revise the TFP as described in the 2018 Farm Bill.

A revision to the TFP is long overdue and an important step in addressing the inadequacy of SNAP benefits. FRAC applauds the Biden administration’s urgent attention to this matter, and urges policymakers to pursue additional solutions to improve SNAP benefit adequacy (e.g., addressing the time-lag described earlier).

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