A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds that approximately 10.5% of families experienced food insecurity in 2020—the same percentage as 2019.
That finding may not seem groundbreaking. But it is truly stunning.
How is it possible that rates of food insecurity did not increase during the worst pandemic in a century? After all, the economic upheaval caused by COVID-19 was swift and severe, with a perfect storm of factors—including massive job loss, significant wage reductions, widespread school closures, and marked increases in food prices—that one would naturally assume a sizable increase in rates of food insecurity across the board would occur.
It didn’t happen.
To be clear, a food insecurity rate of 10.5% is far too high. Rates are even higher among people of color and those with low incomes; we cannot accept that status quo. But major increases in economic and nutrition assistance, approved by Congress during the pandemic, prevented a dire economic situation from turning catastrophic. These types of strategic policy decisions offer a roadmap to not only navigate a public health emergency, but also to accomplish big goals—like ending hunger and poverty in this country for good.
This week will mark a significant turning point in our efforts to achieve the healthier and more equitable future that is in our grasp. October 1 will usher in the largest permanent benefits increase in the nearly 60-year history of what is known today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest nutrition assistance program in the United States.
To explain the significance of this moment—both how we got here and where this road could take us—I had the privilege of talking to a wonderful colleague and terrific friend: Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at RWJF who oversees our childhood nutrition work.
What has SNAP’s role been during the COVID-19 pandemic?
SNAP is extremely effective at increasing food security, improving children’s health and academic performance, supporting economic growth, and lifting people out of poverty. Because of that record, SNAP has been a key component of our economic response to COVID-19.
When the economy went into a recession after COVID-19 hit, several million people turned to the program to help. Congress responded by increasing funding for SNAP to cover the additional participants and also providing a temporary 15% increase in monthly benefits. A new Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer program was created to provide additional support to families that participate in SNAP who lost access to healthy meals when their schools or child care facilities closed. And regulatory changes eased eligibility requirements and made it easier for participants to use their benefits online. Combined with additional economic assistance like the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, this strategy reflects the connections between financial security and food security, and has already had a positive impact.
Looking forward, the Urban Institute estimates that the temporary increase in SNAP benefits—along with direct cash payments, enhanced federal unemployment insurance benefits, and the expanded Child Tax Credit—will contribute to an astonishing decline in poverty in 2021. But what about 2022 and beyond? How can we better utilize SNAP over the long-term? Because even with these short-term supports, we still haven’t been maximizing the full potential of the program to help those in need.
That’s an interesting point. What have we been ‘leaving on the table,’ so to speak, when it comes to SNAP?
SNAP benefits are a lifeline to program participants. But prior to the temporary 15% increase in benefits, in 96% of counties in the U.S., the average SNAP benefit wasn’t enough to cover the cost of an average meal, with the highest gaps seen in both higher-cost urban and smaller rural counties. And even with that bump, which expires at the end of September, the average SNAP benefit still isn’t enough to cover the average meal cost in more than 40% of U.S. counties, with dramatic differences in food prices still playing a significant role in how far a family’s benefits can go. No matter where participants live, SNAP benefits must be enough to cover food costs and ensure families can afford to make healthy purchases. And that’s a big reason why USDA seized this moment to take a truly game-changing step: updating the Thrifty Food Plan.
Tell us about the Thrifty Food Plan. I imagine a lot of people may not even know what it is.
I think you’re right: the Thrifty Food Plan is pretty obscure. But it’s actually incredibly important because this is the mechanism USDA uses to calculate SNAP benefits for participants. The Thrifty Food Plan takes into account a variety of metrics to make those calculations, from food costs to dietary guidance to the nutrition content of certain foods. It has been in existence since 1975, but as USDA notes, the purchasing power of the plan has never changed since its creation.
So USDA used the authority it had been given in the most recent Farm Bill to update and modernize the Thrifty Food Plan, and the results are transformative. Thanks to these updates, the average SNAP benefit will increase by about 25% compared to pre-pandemic averages, increasing the average benefit per participant from $121 to $157.
An extra $36 a month may not seem like much at first glance, and it’s by no means a panacea, but it will make a tremendous difference. The vast majority of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes at or below the poverty line. Many families run out of SNAP benefits before the end of a given month; more than 80 percent of SNAP benefits are spent within the first two weeks of receipt. That makes it exceptionally difficult to buy food in the latter half of a month before the next month’s allotment is distributed. These extra dollars will go a long way toward filling that gap, and keep families from being forced to make impossible choices between buying food, paying the rent, and purchasing medications.
What does the future of SNAP look like? Where does the program go from here?
One of the lessons of the pandemic is that we can’t be satisfied with simply reducing poverty or hunger; our goal must be to eliminate these conditions for good. So while the impact of the permanent benefit increases that take effect on October 1 can’t be overstated, there’s still more we can do. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports a series of additional steps to further strengthen SNAP, including ensuring that all eligible people—particularly immigrants, people of color, and rural residents—are able to easily access the program; broaden eligibility to cover more people; expand nutrition incentive programs that help participants make healthy food purchases; and eliminate the lifetime ban on SNAP participation for convicted drug felons.
I’m proud of the work RWJF has been part of over the past several years to advocate for SNAP participants and add to the research base showing how effective the program is. This week will mark a huge milestone for the program, and it should be rightly celebrated. But there is so much more to do to strengthen and modernize our nutrition assistance programs and policies. And that’s why we’re just getting started.