Expert Report Indicates Need for Larger Food Stamp Benefits

March 11, 2013

SNAP (the food stamp program) is protected from the across-the-board cuts that will soon kick in. But benefits will be cut anyway, come November, because Congress has twice raided the funds it provided for a temporary boost.

A family of three will lose at least $20 a month, according to new estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Still-eligible families would lose considerably more under the Farm Bills the House Agriculture Committee and the full Senate passed last year.

Yet we now have new, credible evidence that food stamp benefits are already too low for a great many participating families. This, at any rate, is a reasonable inference from an analysis jointly produced by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

The core of the problem is the assumptions built into the Thrifty Food Plan — the collection of market baskets that provide the basis for setting food stamp benefits.

Basically, the TFP assumes that families will make many of their meals from scratch, using low-cost, processed ingredients — a stew of potatoes, carrots and cut up chuck roast, for example, or chili made from slow-cooked dried beans.

In other words, someone in the family will have plenty of time to go grocery shopping, with pauses and backtracks for price comparisons, and the time to peel, chop, braise, bake, etc.

The family will live relatively near a full-service grocery store. And it will have the transportation to get there — and home with bags full of groceries.

It will also live in an area where food costs are relatively low, since we know from previous studies that the bill for a TFP-based food selection in a high-cost city far exceeds the maximum food stamp benefit.

And — something the IOM panel doesn’t mention — the family will have a good-sized refrigerator with ample freezer space. We see this assumption in the recipes and tips the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published for “healthy, thrifty meals.”

The IOM panel concludes that the from-scratch assumption is “out of synch with the practices of most households today.” Surely true for the 62% of food stamp households with children who’ve got at least one working member.

The IOM panel doesn’t come to such firm conclusions about the other assumptions. It merely identifies factors USDA should examine in determining whether food stamp allotments are adequate.

This is what USDA asked for. What it will do with the answer remains to be seen.

What our federal policymakers should do seems to me obvious enough. Beating a dead horse here, I know, but they should first and foremost give up the notion of reducing the deficit by cutting food stamp benefits.

Though the recession and lingering labor market ills have driven SNAP spending upward, it’s expected to drop to nearly the same share of GDP — a common measure of federal spending –as it represented in 2007.

The total cost of our primary nutrition safety net would then be somewhere around one-third of one percent of the value of everything our economy produces.

Beyond this, our policymakers ought finally to come to grips with the fact that the TFP doesn’t provide a suitable basis for determining food stamp benefits.

We’ve got scads of evidence that a large number of recipients can’t stretch them till the end of the month — let alone purchase the foods they’d need for a healthful diet.

A fairly recent study for USDA found that food stamp households had used, on average, 90% of their monthly benefits by the end of the third week — this despite the boost that’s due to expire.

The latest reported results of an annual survey conducted for the agency show that nearly half of households that received food stamp benefits throughout 2011 experienced food insecurity, i.e., were at risk of hunger or even sometimes didn’t have enough food for everyone because they couldn’t afford it.

No wonder that, as Feeding America has reported, 58% of the people who regularly or recurrently visited the food pantries in its network were food stamp recipients.

The Food Research and Action Center has repeatedly recommended that food stamp benefits be based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the TFP — for reasons fully explained in a report it issued last December.

FRAC offers some additional recommendations in a statement triggered by the IOM report, e.g., a change in the outdated assumption that eligible households can spend 30% of their own income to supplement their benefits.

Congress will presumably again address the need for a new Farm Bill this year. So it’s got an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and create a food stamp program that will, at long last, end hunger and malnutrition in this country.

At the very least, it should do no further harm. Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but in this political environment, it is.

USDA Announces Priorities For Child Nutrition Act

February 22, 2010

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently held a conference call to lay out the administration’s priorities for reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Broad brush, little detail. But it’s clear they’ve got their mind around the issues and will be seeking some important changes.

We’re dealing with twin problems, Vilsack said. On the one hand, about 16.5 million children live in households that can’t always afford a nutritious diet. In fact, more than 500,000 simply don’t get enough to eat. On the other hand, a third of all children are overweight or obese.

So what does the administration propose?

  • “Better access to resources, i.e., “more creative and innovative” processes for enrolling children in nutrition programs. These could include automatic enrollment in school meal programs when a family is approved for food stamps and/or TANF.
  • A “robust increase” in school breakfast participation. One focus here seems to be getting more schools to offer breakfast. The Secretary mentioned reimbursement rates and providing commodities, apparently recognizing that costs are a major deterrent.
  • Improved nutritional quality. “Too much salt, sugar and fat,” the Secretary said. “Empty calories.” They’d like to “encourage” schools to improve, e.g., through funding training for food service professionals and an extension of the food service equipment grants in the economic recovery act. No mention of new nutrition standards.
  • Correct, complete information on what’s being served. The target here seems to be parents. No specific reference to nutritional values, let alone whether these would be required or only encouraged. Earlier testimony by the Secretary suggests he may be counting on parental pressure.
  • A consistent message during school time. “Message” means what foods are available in vending machines and a la carte areas. And here the Secretary did speak of standards.
  • Innovative ways to reach children on non-school days.
  • A recognition that the weight issue is also about physical activity. A reference here to the wellness policies that schools have been required to have since the Child Nutrition Act was last reauthorized. Also to USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge–awards for schools that are promoting good nutrition and physical activity. In short, nothing new. But this is a tough issue in a country that prizes local control over school curricula.
  • Continued support for the Farm to School Initiative, including technological assistance so that schools accurately account for their reimbursable activities. These include, but aren’t limited to purchases from local and regional producers.

President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget includes $1 billion a year for 10 years to support reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. This would obviously cover some financial and technical support for a number of the above priorities. But I have to wonder about improved nutritional quality.

The Institute of Medicine recently recommended significant changes in school breakfast and lunch menus–more fruits, more vegetables (dark green and orange, with a limit on starchy), whole grains, a maximum as well as a minimum number of calories, thus limiting opportunities to load meals up with high-sugar/high-fat options. These changes would obviously cost more.

Rochelle Davis, Founding Director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, says that school districts are already spending, on average, 35 cents more per lunch than the maximum reimbursement they can get from USDA. In urban areas, the gap is about 70 cents per meal. At this point, schools are highly vulnerable to cutbacks–hardly in a position to absorb higher costs.

After-school snack and summer meal providers are struggling too. No point in focusing on innovative ways to expand participation if the programs can’t even sustain their current costs.

Yet of all the administration’s priorities, expanding the meal programs and improving their nutritional profiles may be the most critical–especially for low-income children. So it’s important that the reauthorizing legislation put teeth into the nutritional quality part. Equally important that it provide sufficient funding.

Vilsack mentioned the need for strong grassroots support. And that surely will be needed in these deficit-minded times.

The Healthy Schools Campaign has an online letter we can use to get those grassroots growing.