Modernizing the TFP: One Step on the Journey Toward Food Sovereignty

By Parker Gilkesson

Earlier this week, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that they have fulfilled a promise from the 2018 bipartisan Farm Bill to re-evaluate the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP). The update will result in an average 27% increase in benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or roughly $36. The increase is based on the usual SNAP benefit allotments, not the current increase in benefits due to COVID provisions. The TFP was grossly outdated and had not been adjusted outside of inflation since 1970s; therefore, this update is long overdue.

Modernizing the TFP is a necessary step toward economic justice for people experiencing poverty. The USDA uses the TFP to determine the amount of benefits provided under SNAP. Updating it to reflect the realities of current food costs, the time families have to cook, and nutritional standards for a healthy diet is necessary to ensure that SNAP recipients have adequate access to food.

Refreshing the TFP is an important step, but just one of many needed to ensure that people experiencing poverty can afford the food they need to live and thrive. The SNAP program already helps pull families out of hunger and poverty, but we can also hold space for the fact that the program has room to be strengthened. The USDA is promising to uphold the Farm Bill’s directive to reevaluate the program every 5 years. In its next reevaluation, my hope is that additional factors are deeply evaluated to further adjust SNAP benefits to reflect the needs of all people, but especially people of color. Factors such as diverse cultural dietary needs, “mom and pop” grocery stores that sell foods from folk’s homelands, adequate transportation, and food apartheid areas where access to healthy and affordable food is limited.

Oftentimes, nutritionists are not considering how food from other cultures can fit into a nutritional diet. Instead, Eurocentric foods are considered the standard. Other cultures use a vast array of spices, meats, sauces, vegetables, and condiments that are often not cheap, nor included in an evaluation of a healthy diet. In the words of Dr. Kera Nyemb-Diop, it’s time that we decolonize our plates, to recognize that Eurocentric foods are not necessarily healthier than the cultural and ancestral foods of people of color.

As the USDA continues its equity journey, I encourage them to leap even further in reevaluating nutritional standards over the next 5 years. The USDA should create a viable plan to end the food apartheid in neighborhoods experiencing low incomes, and partner with local organizers and community members to understand how they would like to access food. In addition, assistance and incentives could be provided for more diverse food suppliers to accept SNAP benefits, like a “mom and pop” store, a fruit man (as I affectionately call the farmer who visits my Baltimore city neighborhood), a community-based organization, or community farm. The overall goal I would like the USDA to prioritize is food sovereignty— which goes beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs but empowers communities to have a say in their food systems and rejects the social construct of food commodification. Prioritizing food sovereignty would mean that communities could foster a food system that they feel best maximizes the nutritional, health, and cultural benefits of food for them instead of an industrialized food system that’s main goal is to maximize the profit of food enterprises.

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