Food Stamp Benefits Fall Short of Costs

August 29, 2009

What with the high unemployment rate, it’s no surprise that a record number of people now depend on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. Enrollment in the program jumped to 34.4 million in May–up by 2.2 million since January. There’s every reason to believe the number will go higher.

So it’s more important than ever for Congress to revisit food stamp benefit levels. In 2008, it made some changes in SNAP (the food stamp program) that modestly boosted benefits for most recipients and gave a somewhat greater boost for working families with high child care costs.

The economic stimulus package included a further temporary 13.6% increase in benefits. This gives a family of four a maximum of $668 per month–or about $1.85 per person per meal.

I can’t imagine eating healthfully on that amount. My husband and I spend more than what our total monthly benefit would be just on fruits and vegetables. And we (mostly) steer clear of the pricier choices.

The heart of the problem is that benefits are calculated on the basis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan. The TFP is basically a market basket of foods that, if prepared at home, would provide a nutritious diet at minimal cost. Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be.

A family is expected to spend 30% of its net income on food. Food stamps are supposed to make up the difference between this and the cost of the TFP. But they don’t. According to a recent USDA study, the way that benefits are annually adjusted has resulted in consistent shortfalls–an average of $22 per month in 2008.

And this is only an average. In 2007, a research team developed an actual shopping list for a family of four based on the TFP and then collected prices on the items at 16 stores in low-income neighborhoods in Boston and Philadelphia.

They found that the average cost of the TFP in Boston was 39% higher than the family’s maximum food stamp benefit and 49% higher in Philadelphia. This, of course, is in part because, like the official poverty threshold, food stamp benefits take no account of geographic differences.

USDA has three other food plans–low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal. According to the Food Action and Research Center, the low-cost plan is generally in line with what low and moderate-income families report they need to spend on food. Its estimated cost is currently more than 20% higher than the TFP.

As part of its strategy for ending child hunger, FRAC recommends that food stamp benefits be based on the low-cost plan and that benefits be adjusted more quickly so that they reflect current prices, rather than prices calculated up to 16 months earlier.

The House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2010 provide a hefty increase for SNAP. This is intended to accommodate the costs of rising participation, plus an extension of the temporary increase.

But, so far as I can see, real reform isn’t on the horizon.