We must continue to update the Thrifty Food Plan to ensure SNAP benefits are sufficient

By Teon Hayes 

At a Senate hearing last week, Sen. John Boozman (R-AK) criticized a recent update to the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), the formula the federal government uses to determine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefit levels.  In 2021, the U.S Department of Agriculture modernized the plan for the first time in nearly 50 years to reflect current food prices and dietary needs. This update resulted in a 21 percent increase in SNAP benefits per person, or roughly an extra $36 per month.  

Although modernizing the TFP to increase the purchasing power of SNAP participants was long overdue, Sen. Boozman and others have pointed to the increase as evidence that spending on SNAP should be curbed. However, ensuring that SNAP benefits are sufficient as part of the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization is a crucial step toward promoting economic justice and addressing food insecurity for individuals and families experiencing poverty.  

During the pandemic, the SNAP program responded quickly to the economic crisis by offering emergency allotments—or extra monthly benefits to program participants. However, these extra benefits have ended in all states. Millions of people have returned to the reality that SNAP benefits are often not enough to last all month. SNAP benefits must be sufficient and allow people to purchase the amount and types of food that meet their needs.

What is the Thrifty Food Plan?  

The TFP is one of the four plans used to estimate the cost of a healthy diet across various price points. The Thrifty Food Plan is the lowest cost plan and offers a cost-effective and nutritionally balanced diet plan for healthy eating when there are limited resources. Other plans such as the Liberal Plan reflect the budget of families who can afford to pay twice as much for food and have resources to purchase the widest selection of healthy food options.  

The 2018 Farm Bill required USDA to re-evaluate the plan by 2022 and every five years thereafter. Before the 2021 update, the plan was grossly outdated and did not reflect critical factors such as the current economy, cost of living, cost of food, the time it takes to prepare meals, diverse dietary needs, transportation needed to purchase food, or food apartheid, areas where access to healthy and affordable food is limited.  

The re-evaluation of the TFP had a positive impact on households that use SNAP around the nation.  The new TFP kept nearly 2.3 million people out of poverty in the fourth quarter of 2021, reducing poverty by 4.7 percent compared to estimates if the plan had not been updated, according to the Urban Institute, Child poverty was reduced by 8.6 percent, with the largest decrease seen among Black children. seen among Black children. 

It is essential to continue protecting and modernizing the TFP through mandated five-year reevaluations.  The next periodic re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan must include a detailed assessment of additional factors to ensure that SNAP benefits are adjusted to meet the needs of all individuals, particularly people of color. These factors should include but are not limited to:  

  • A comprehensive evaluation of diverse cultural dietary needs,  
  • Recognizing the higher cost of purchasing food in food apartheid areas where access to healthy and affordable food is limited.  

Base SNAP benefits on a less restrictive food plan 

Sen. Boozman has suggested that the TFP should revert to what it was before the 2021 update, which Congress should reject. In fact, Congress should consider shifting to a less restrictive food plan to reflect the cost of healthy meals more accurately. The Low-Cost or Moderate Food Plans would be a better fit for SNAP participants as they offer a greater variety of healthy foods and align more closely with what families say they need.  CLASP recommends additional improvements to SNAP benefit levels:  

  • Adjust SNAP benefit levels more than just once a year during times of inflation. Currently, SNAP benefit levels are based on the costs set forth in the TFP in June and remain at that level until the following September. At times of high inflation, this waiting period erodes the value of the benefit. 
  • Boost the minimum benefit level, currently $23 per month for a two-person household. 
  • Provide an additional amount to cover transportation costs or delivery fees in areas with limited access to groceries. 

By incorporating these recommendations, Congress can ensure that individuals and families experiencing poverty have access to cost-effective, nutritious, and healthy food options, thereby reducing hunger, promoting better health outcomes, and advancing economic justice for all. 

Get more content like this and more on the Farm Bill in 2023: