off the charts

Higher SNAP Benefits Mean More Groceries, Better Nutrition

Dottie Rosenbaum

Senior Fellow and Interim Program Area Lead for Food Assistance

Boosting SNAP (food stamp) benefits raises not only the amount that low-income households spend on groceries but also its nutritional quality, a new study from CBPP’s Policy Futures project finds.  (Click here for the related policy brief.)  It’s one of several recent studies showing the potential benefits of increasing benefits, which average only about $1.40 per person per meal.

The study’s main findings include:

  • Low-income families report that to meet their food needs, they would need to spend an additional $4-$9 per person weekly on food.  “Food-insecure” families (meaning they had trouble affording adequate food at some point in the past year), who are more likely to be poorer, report needing to spend an additional $12-$20 per person weekly.
  • If we gave households an additional $30 per month per person in SNAP benefits (which would be about a 20 percent increase in the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for SNAP benefits), their food spending would go up by about $19 per person, based on the food spending patterns of households with somewhat more resources.  (Food spending would rise by less than the SNAP benefit increase, even though SNAP can be spent only on food, because the added benefits would free up household income for other necessities such as utility bills or non-food groceries that SNAP doesn’t cover.)
  • That increase in food spending, in turn, would raise consumption of more nutritious foods.  Households would consume more tomatoes and vegetables and less fast food, for example (see graph).
  • Increased food spending also would lower food insecurity among SNAP recipients.

As the authors note, their finding that households, when given additional resources, spend them on more nutritious foods that may yield better long-term health outcomes is consistent with recent research comparing the long-term outcomes of people in different geographic areas when food stamps gradually expanded nationwide in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Children who had access to food stamps in early childhood and whose mothers had access during their pregnancy had better health and educational outcomes as adults than children who didn’t have access to food stamps.