Largest increase in SNAP history recognizes higher grocery costs, program’s potential to boost economy

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Thomas Barwick
Source: Getty/Thomas Barwick

Related tags SNAP

For the first time in decades other than for inflation, the US Department of Agriculture is increasing the basis for which it calculates food assistance benefits allotted under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – a move that will help more families consistently access healthy food, stimulate the economy and create new jobs.

Beginning in October, SNAP beneficiaries will receive on average $36.24 more per person per month – representing a near 30 percentage point increase over average pre-pandemic levels of $121 per person. This increase excludes additional funds provided as part of the pandemic relief.

The increase is based on a reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which tracks the cost of groceries for a family of four to consume a healthy, cost-conscious diet at home. The TFP was last updated in 2006, since which USDA notes dietary guidance, food prices and what Americans eat has changed dramatically.

For example, USDA notes, “the revised plan includes more fish and red and orange vegetables to align with recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025,”​ and it was calculated using updated purchasing data from stores to better reflect the actual cost of groceries.

The review and ultimate increase come at the behest of Congress, which mandated in the 2018 Farm Bill that USDA reevaluate the TFP by 2022 and every following five years  based on “current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns and dietary guidance.”

An Executive Ordered ​signed by President Joe Biden in January reinforced this directive and allowed states to increase SNAP emergency allotments for beneficiaries who previously did not qualify under coronavirus relief bills for additional benefits. Those bills increased the number of people who qualified for maximum benefits, but did not raise levels for the 40% of recipients who already received benefits.

While this increase is not tied directly to pandemic relief, it comes at a time when food insecurity in America has surged due to job losses and other pressures experienced during lockdowns and other safety measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The increase also comes as some states are ending emergency pandemic-related benefit increases – a move that could limit some Americans purchasing power before they have financially recovered from the pandemic.

Finally, the increase comes after recently released research​ revealed that 90% of SNAP beneficiaries face significant hurdles in accessing sufficient healthy food, including the higher cost of healthy food and running out of benefits before the end of the month.

A controversial move

While the increase likely will help more than beneficiaries as the money is quickly spent at retailers and in local economies to allow potentially for the creation of new jobs, the change was not universally viewed positively.

Republican leaders on Friday asked​ the Government Accountability Office to investigate how the TFP was updated and how the methodologies currently used compare to previous review cycles, which have held the TFP at “cost-neutral” for the past four updates.  

Meanwhile, members of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations urged USDA in an Aug. 11 letter to not hold the TFP at cost-neutral – citing “substantial and growing evidence that the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan is inadequate to support a nutritious diet.”

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