In 2008, Children’s HealthWatch and partners reported on a unique study aimed at finding out whether food stamp benefits enable low-income families to buy what they need for a healthy diet. Now we’ve got a followup.
The answer now, as before is no. And though the followup was conducted only in Philadelphia, the findings are generally applicable to other urban areas, including the District of Columbia.
For both studies, Children’s HealthWatch developed a shopping list based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan — the current basis for setting the maximum value of food stamps.
Then a couple of trained graduate students went to stores of various sizes in four low-income neighborhoods. They collected prices for the items on the shopping list and noted items that weren’t available.
Not surprisingly, small stores didn’t stock anything close to the TFP market basket.* An average of 50% of the items were missing — mostly fresh fruits and vegetables and other “healthy, nutrient rich foods.” Even medium-sized stores stocked, on average, only two-thirds.
But, in a way, what was on the shelves (or not) didn’t matter because food stamp benefits wouldn’t have covered the costs of the TFP items.
A family of four with the maximum benefit would have been short an average of $196 per month. In other words, it would have had to come up with $2,352 per year to eat according to the TFP that met its nutritional needs.
Shortfalls were considerably higher for families who have to rely on nearby small stores — $251 per month or more than $3,300 a year for the family of four.
Recall that the current maximum food stamp benefit reflects the 13.6% boost Congress passed as part of the Recovery Act. Without it, the family of four would have been short an average of $276 per month or somewhat over $3,300 per year.
This is clearly more than a low-income family can afford. Even now, as one the Drexel University’s Witnesses to Hunger says, “The amount we get for three meals a day is not cutting it …. [W]e have to eat unhealthy food.”
The food stamp boost is due to end in November 2013 rather than, as originally expected, some five or so years later. Congress foreshortened its life to offset the costs of some other measures.
Congress could, of course, restore the funds it raided, thus giving the food stamp program enough to pay for the boost until the inflation-adjusted cost of the TFP yielded the same results.
Children’s HealthWatch recommends this. The Food Research and Action Center is campaigning for it as well.
Yet there’d still be a shortfall — at least for a great many families in urban areas. Children’s HealthWatch mentions families in rural communities as well.
The root cause here is the way food stamp benefits are calculated, i.e., costs of the items in the TFP, adjusted annually for nationwide price increases.
FRAC recommended some time ago that food stamp benefits be based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan. This plan, it said, is “the lowest of the three government budgets for normal use” and “generally in line with what low and moderate-income families report they need to spend.”
Children’s HealthWatch says the food plan switch should be considered — specifically to more accurately reflect food costs in areas where they’re higher than nationwide averages.
The Low-Cost Food plan now costs, on average, about 23% more than the TFP. This is considerably less than all but the poorest households spend.
The latest food security survey for USDA found that households with incomes above 185% of the federal poverty line — then about $40,790 a year for a family of four — spent 30% more than the TFP created for their size and configuration.
That’s just 1% more than the average shortfall the Children’s HealthWatch researchers found.
The food stamp program is due for reauthorization this year, along with the rest of the complex and controversial Farm Bill. Highly doubtful that Congress will even try to enact a revised law until some time after the elections.
But it’s still good to get the fundamental benefits issues on the radar screen — and keep them there in as many ways as we can.
I, for one, would like to see mystery shoppers armed with TFP grocery lists prowling corner stores and supermarkets all over the country.
* Each of USDA’s food plans is actually 15 different market baskets specifying types and quantities of food for different age and gender groups, plus two each for families of two and four members. The ChildrensWatch shopping list was apparently based on one of the market baskets for a family with two adults and two children.