Was USDA’s process for increasing SNAP benefits ‘marred’? GAO reveals shortcomings of Thrifty Food Plan review that could impact future assessments

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	Nes
Source: Getty/ Nes

Related tags SNAP food insecurity Usda

The US Department of Agriculture’s decision this summer to increase the benefits allotted under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program well beyond inflation is under fire after a government watchdog found the agency did not follow best-practices when making the decision, including a formal peer review, and failed to fully incorporate external input in its revaluation.

Republican leaders on the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry argue that these shortcomings were intentional and a politically motivated effort “to pull the wool over the eyes of the public”​ and leave taxpayers “to foot the $256bn bill.”

The congressmen stopped short of calling for USDA to withdraw the increase or change course in any way.

But, the Government Accountability Office​, which conducted the audit at the congressmen’s behest, urged USDA to adopt key project management standards, incorporate peer review guidelines and increase transparency for future revaluations of the benefit amounts.

Acceleration of review may have led USDA to cut corners

USDA’s decision last August to increase the food assistance benefits ​allotted under SNAP by an average of $36.24 per person per month – representing a near 30 percentage point increase over the average pre-pandemic level of $121 – came after Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill directed the agency to review by 2022 the Thrifty Food Plan, on which SNAP benefits are based and which was last updated in 2006, other than for standard inflation increases.

The increase, which went into effect in October, came just as many states ended emergency pandemic-related benefit increases – threatening the purchasing power of some Americans before they had recovered from the pandemic and at a time when inflation was driving up grocery prices.

The knowledge that emergency benefits would end, could have contributed to USDA’s decision to accelerate its review of the Thrifty Food Plan, which GAO argued was at the root of the agency’s decision to forgo several best practices, including a formal peer review of its assessment of the Thrifty Food Plan.

GAO: Three ‘key project elements’ missing

In the report released late last month, GAO determined that USDA’s revaluation that resulted in a 21% increase in the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan and the maximum SNAP benefit, was conducted without three “key project elements in place,”​ including a charter that would set clear expectations for stakeholders and a way to measure success, a comprehensive project management plan that included quality control elements, and a dedicated project manager to ensure key practices were followed.

GAO also found that USDA gathered external input in its review process, but under pressure to publish the update ahead of its original deadline, did not fully incorporate the input it its revaluation. This resulted in the agency nixing its original plan for a formal peer review and opting instead for a review by USDA officials involved in the revaluation who were not independent.

The watchdog group also criticized USDA for not fully disclosing justifications for decisions in the review and offering “insufficient analysis of the effects of the decisions”​ so that “members of the public and policymakers reading the TFP report may not understand the rational for decisions made by USDA officials”​ and hindering research replication.

USDA is developing peer review guidance, open data

While USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service did not explicitly agree or disagree with GAO’s recommendations, it “concurred with select elements of our review and outlined steps planned or underway that align with the intent of some of our recommendations,”​ GAO said in the report.

This includes creating a peer review guidance that will be published before the next Thrifty Food Plan review in five years, and making available data necessary for other researchers to replicate its assessment of the Thrifty Food Plan.

While amenable on some points, FNS disagreed with some of GAO’s evaluation criteria, including the project management and economic analysis standards – a point on which GAO stands behind – and GAO’s overall assessment that the review process was not transparent.

USDA: ‘FNS took a careful and considered approach’

In a letter sent to GAO, FNS administrator Cynthia Long explained that the 2018 Farm Bill directed FNS to revaluate the Thrifty Food Plan based on food price, food composition data, consumption patterns and dietary guidance, for which she said the agency used scientific, data-driven approach to execute.

“FNS took a careful and considered approach, updating the data and the optimization model when aligned with the 2018 Farm Bill mandate and where the body of scientific evidence was clear and convincing in support a change,”​ Long wrote.

The next review of the Thrifty Food Plan will be in five years, according to the 2018 Farm Bill.

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