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POLICY INSIGHT
BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Modernizing SNAP Benefits Will Help Millions of Families Afford Healthy, Nutritious Diet

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced an update to the Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to set benefit levels for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This science-driven and long-overdue reevaluation will be welcome news for families across the country, many of whom will be better able to afford a healthy diet with greater SNAP benefits.

The Thrifty Food Plan is a set of foods that represent a nutritionally adequate diet that low-income households can purchase and prepare, assuming they take significant steps to stretch their food budget. The cost of the Thrifty Food Plan is the basis for SNAP benefit levels.

Congress directed USDA in the bipartisan 2018 farm bill to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022 to better reflect current information. Specifically, in section 4002 of the law Congress gave USDA the following instructions:

By 2022 and at 5-year intervals thereafter, the Secretary shall re-evaluate and publish the market baskets of the thrifty food plan based on current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns, and dietary guidance. [7 U.S.C. 2012(u)]

Today’s announcement, based on analysis completed by USDA’s nutritionists, researchers, and policy experts and informed by external stakeholders, fulfills that directive in time for SNAP benefits to be adjusted October 1, the start of fiscal year 2022. A 125-page report includes substantial details about USDA’s methodology for the update.

USDA explains that it used the same mathematical model for this revised Thrifty Food Plan as it did for prior updates, and it relied on the most recent available data about the four factors identified in the 2018 farm bill. The revised plan reflects current nutritional guidelines and includes a broader range of healthy foods than the prior plan (released in 2006) while still expecting families to economize their food purchases.

The cost of the revised plan is higher than the prior plan and will result in a meaningful but modest increase in SNAP benefit levels. The maximum SNAP benefit will rise by 21 percent (not including the regular annual inflation adjustment, which this year is about 1.5 percent). The average benefit will rise by about $1.20 per person per day, according to USDA. This will result in average benefits per person per day rising from about $4.25 to about $5.45 in fiscal year 2022, CBPP estimates (without the temporary, pandemic-related increases that are now in place but expire in the coming months).

Until now, the Thrifty Food Plan had been adjusted only for inflation since the 1970s, even as our understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet changed. That’s left SNAP benefits badly out of line with the most recent dietary recommendations and the economic realities most struggling households face when trying to buy and prepare healthy foods. Indeed, roughly half of households receiving SNAP benefits are food insecure, reflecting the reality that their SNAP benefits combined with their income aren’t enough to afford food.

The outdated Thrifty Food Plan relied on a very narrow range of less expensive foods to stay within the same low-cost constraint over the years. For example, it assumed that a family of four each week consumed several pounds of beans and 40 pounds of lower-fat and skim milk and yogurt (equal to about 4.5 gallons of milk or 20 32-ounce tubs of yogurt). By contrast, it included only small amounts of foods that many families typically eat, such as eggs and cheese.

Scientific evidence now emphasizes the importance of eating a broad range of foods, including more whole grains; red, orange, and leafy green vegetables; lean proteins; and seafood. USDA’s update reflects this evidence, basing the Thrifty Food Plan on a more varied set of healthy foods that meet current nutritional standards and are more in line with what households actually eat. For example, the updated plan includes more red and orange vegetables than the 2006 version did.

Previous plans also assumed that families have the time to prepare most of their meals from scratch, counting on them to spend one to two hours cooking each day. In reality, the typical working person spends under an hour, and sometimes less than 15 minutes, on daily meal preparation. Preparing a healthy meal requires both time — to plan menus, travel to and from a grocery store, comparison shop to minimize costs, and prepare meals — and money. The updated plan includes healthy foods that take less time to prepare, even if they cost modestly more, such as pre-sliced frozen vegetables or ready-to-cook cuts of lean meat. For example, the updated plan assumes that nearly all beans are purchased in canned form, unlike the previous version, which relied heavily on dried beans.

SNAP households aren’t limited to buying only the foods in the Thrifty Food Plan, but SNAP benefits that include more realistic assumptions will better reflect the cost of a healthy diet — allowing households to buy healthier foods — and will make a difference for families who often run out of benefits before the month ends. The increase will be particularly important for families who live in high-cost areas where housing takes up a larger share of their income, leaving less for food.

While the increase in SNAP benefits resulting from the revised Thrifty Food Plan will make benefits more adequate going forward, SNAP households’ benefits will rise by only about 7 percent in October. That’s because a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits established by the December 2020 COVID-19 relief bill and extended by the American Rescue Plan is slated to expire at the end of September. Thus, in October, the temporary 15 percent increase will end and the 21 percent Thrifty Food Plan increase will take effect. (The regular annual inflation adjustment will also take effect in October.)

Another pandemic-related SNAP benefit measure that has provided SNAP participants with emergency supplementary benefits will end when federal or state COVID-19 public health emergency designations expire. At that time many households will experience a substantial cut to their SNAP benefits.

Increased SNAP benefits will help address the disproportionate impacts of benefit inadequacy on people of color. Poverty and food insecurity rates are higher among Black and Latino households due to racism and other structural factors, including unequal education, job, and housing opportunities, that contribute to income disparities. Because of SNAP’s role in addressing higher food insecurity among people of color, ensuring benefits are adequate is especially important in these communities.

This benefit increase will also have positive impacts on children, for whom the effects of food insecurity are particularly detrimental. Children participating in SNAP face lower risks of nutritional deficiencies and poor health. SNAP also can affect children’s ability to succeed in school. One study, for example, found that test scores among students in SNAP households are highest for those receiving benefits two to three weeks before the test, suggesting that SNAP can help students learn and prepare for tests. Additional studies show that receiving SNAP benefits has significant long-term benefits for children, including improved health, educational attainment, and labor market outcomes.

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