Queuing for Bread

SNAP Catches Up with the Cost of a Healthy Basic Diet

Food Bank of DelewareA century ago, the iconic image of hunger was the bread line. Today, it is the line at a food bank, swamped by demand because of the pandemic. And for more than a decade now, the SNAP program has been inadequate for providing healthy nutrition to families facing food insecurity. But today, that will change. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will announce changes to align the SNAP program with the real costs of a healthy basic diet.

A Technical Exercise in Nutrition Science

Vilsack describes the changes as the result of a technical exercise in nutrition science. USDA has revised the model dietary plan that shows how a family of four can practically meet its needs for basic nutrition. It’s based on wonky details of dietary guidelines. But the result is very straightforward. The full SNAP benefit will go up by 21 percent – the largest ever in the history of this program.

Fixing a Profound Shortfall

The old plan was a formula for food insecurity. The average family exhausted three fourths of their benefit by the middle of every month. The lack of adequate nutrition has a profound effect on health and achievement opportunities for children in these families. Students don’t function well in schools when they are hungry. An analysis by the Urban Institute shows that the maximum SNAP benefit will not cover adequate nutrition in 96 percent of all U.S. counties.

The result is that people who find themselves in difficult circumstances must also cope with a fear of running out of food. “You have to have extra brain space” to deal with it, says Sheena Giles of Columbia, SC. The program squeezes families into unhealthy eating patterns that become steadily worse at the end of the month when benefits run low.

A Dramatic Improvement

The 2018 Farm Bill called for a reexamination of the calculations for SNAP program benefits. In January, President Biden directed USDA to take a close look at the mismatch between the SNAP Thrifty Food Plan and a healthy basic diet. It was this action that led to today’s announcement.

Advocates for child and family health are ecstatic. Jamie Bussel of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation captures the sentiment:

“Plain and simple, this is totally a game-changing moment. The changes have enormous potential to reduce, and potentially eliminate, child hunger and poverty in this country. This will reflect much more accurately what food actually costs in communities.”

Poor nutrition brings poor health, and in the current food environment, it brings more obesity. This is a big step forward.

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Queuing for Bread, painting by Nicolae Tonitza / WikiArt

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August 16, 2021

3 Responses to “SNAP Catches Up with the Cost of a Healthy Basic Diet”

  1. August 16, 2021 at 11:56 am, Parinitha Bhargav said:

    A healthy diet is the root of healthy life. Thank you for the information shared.

  2. August 19, 2021 at 7:18 am, Michael Jones said:

    More money for healthy food is great, however the next step in SNAP legislation must be to limit access to unhealthy foods. Data has consistently shown that the majority of SNAP benefits is spent on refined, processed, and ultra-processed foods, sweets and SSBs. The tax-payer must not subsidize the candy aisle only to later subsidize the resulting healthcare impact of the poor diet it propagates. https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/nutrition-programs-policies/make-food-stamps-healthy

    • August 19, 2021 at 1:58 pm, Ted said:

      Great idea. Then we can burn more energy with heated arguments about everybody’s favorite food that turns out to be ultra-processed or otherwise despised by any of a zillion schools of dietary righteousness. Are fake burgers wonderful because they’re plant-based? Or terrible because they are ultra-processed? The list is long. The feelings are strong. The answers are subjective, because no single food will wreck a person’s diet. It’s the whole of one’s dietary pattern that matters.