September is Hunger Action Month — an annual campaign Feeding America launched in 2008 to get us all involved in advocacy, volunteering and other actions against hunger in our communities. That, as you know, was at the outset of the Great Recession.
It’s supposedly far behind us, but more people are hungry than shortly before it began. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported that significantly fewer people lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough of the right kinds of foods for “an active healthy lifestyle.”
Yet its survey found over 42.2 million of them — roughly 6 million more than in 2007. About 2.7 million more — 14.6 million in all — had “very low food security,” i.e., lived in households that couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough of anything.
More than half the food insecure people lived in households that received SNAP (food stamp) benefits for the entire year. And well over 21% had very low food security.
I’ve used past food insecurity figures, as well as other evidence to hammer on the need to increase SNAP benefits. I’d like to recognize this Hunger Action month differently. So I’ll share a personal discovery as a lead into gleanings from a new policy brief.
Since Jesse died, I’ve tried to keep track of what I spend on food — just curious to know how much less than when our budget had to cover meals and snacks for both of us. Then I wondered how that compared to what I could buy if I depended on SNAP benefits.
I found I’m spending, on average, about twice the maximum I could receive. I find this quite remarkable.
I cook virtually everything that needs cooking — mostly from scratch. I don’t eat beef or pork any more. I don’t buy pricey fish or seafood, much as I’d like to. None of the priciest fruits and vegetables either. No sodas or sweet munchies now that I can keep such temptations out of the house without depriving anyone else.
Don’t mean to bore you with the details of my diet. But they’re relevant to my discovery in several ways addressed by the aforementioned brief and its proposals for “modernizing” SNAP.
The author, Professor James Ziliak, focuses on the food plan used to set SNAP benefit — aptly named the Thrifty Food Plan because it’s even cheaper than the lowest-cost plan USDA has developed for the rest of us.
The TFP assumes that SNAP households will fix their meals from scratch — mainly raw ingredients, though not entirely. Families aren’t expected to bake their own bread, for example. And some recipes USDA has published include canned beans, store-bought tomato sauce and the like.
Preparing TFP meals nevertheless requires an estimated 13 hours a week — or perhaps 16 — according to different studies Ziliak cites. Neither time estimate includes getting the groceries or cleaning up after cooking and eating.
Ziliak traces the prep time to the foods in the TFP “market basket.” They’ve changed over time, for two inter-related reasons. One is that federal law has required USDA to adjust the TFP in light of new Dietary Guidelines for Americans — the federal government’s recommendations for a well-balanced diet.
The other is that USDA uses a model that keeps the real-dollar cost of the plan the same as it was when the TFP replaced a very cheap, short-term plan in 1975. The result is a market basket increasingly weighted toward very low-cost foods — bought in bulk or the equivalent.
Hence the unspoken from-scratch assumption. That’s unrealistic for many households, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded — and not only because of the time involved.
I’ve already summarized on other reasons. So I’ll confine myself here to one that’s a core concern of the modernizing proposal — the “geographic variability of food prices.”
Basically, those low-cost foods in the market basket aren’t always as cheap as the TFP assumes because USDA prices them based on the CPI-U — the consumer price index most federal programs use for inflation adjustments.
The index is for urban consumers nationwide. But, as we all know, food costs a whole lot more in some metro areas than others. Using a fairly new database, Ziliak maps the differences between actual TFP market basket costs and the national average in 2010.
In parts of the country, including the District of Columbia, they were as much as 21% higher than average. In-depth studies in a couple of cities have found even great gaps between SNAP benefits and market basket costs.
Ziliak’s proposal would have SNAP benefits immediately increased by 20%. The boost derives from what he calls the “time deficit,” i.e., the difference between the food prep time the TFP requires and what someone (or ones) in SNAP households probably spend.
It would thus eliminate or at least reduce a related deficit — the extra money many of them spend to put food on the table because they don’t have that much prep time.
USDA would then make two changes in the model it uses to calculate the market basket cost it uses for benefits. It would introduce geographic price adjustments, using any one of several already available sources.
It would also change the so-called reference household it uses. That’s now a two-adult household, with two children, the elder somewhere between six and nine years old. Ziliak wants the elder to become a teenage boy. His food needs would presumably drive another across-the-board increase.
Lastly, USDA would conduct research aimed at improving the household food purchasing data it uses to create the market baskets — and, as you might expect, actual food procurement, prep and cleanup time.
The reforms would, of course, reduce food insecurity. They would also, Ziliak argues, reduce poverty, especially for very low-income households. (We’d see the impact if countable income included the value of SNAP benefits, as it already does in the Census Bureau’s better poverty measure analyses.)
The benefits boosts would lead SNAP households to eat more healthfully too, Ziliak says. He borrows here from a recent study for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It assumes a $30 per month increase in SNAP benefits — roughly the same 20% Ziliak recommends.
We’ve had ample evidence of problems with the TFP for a long time — and other proposed fixes. I’ve focused on Ziliak’s because it pulls in a lot of the recent research and makes a persuasive case for reforms that USDA could readily undertake — if Congress headed the call to action on hunger.
Big if, I know.