For the first time in 15 years, the formula used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) to determine the benefits someone is eligible to receive from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) was revised to better reflect the realistic cost of eating an adequate and nutritious diet in the United States. This long-awaited update will provide an urgently needed increase in benefits to millions of Americans who struggle to feed themselves and their families. 

The USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan (“TFP”) outlines the types, amounts, and associated costs of nutrient-dense foods and beverages people can purchase to prepare nutritious meals and snacks at home on a limited budget. For over 50 years, the TFP (and its predecessor the Economy Food Plan) has served as the basis for calculating SNAP benefits. The amount of SNAP benefits for eligible households is equal to the TFP reduced by an amount equal to 30% of the household’s net income, subject to certain variables. Nearly 42 million Americans participate in SNAP, the majority of whom (68%) are children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. SNAP benefits enable people to purchase foods and beverages from grocery stores and farmers’ markets that not only can support people’s health and nutrition security, but can support local farms by incentivizing purchases of fruits and vegetables through the “Double Up Food Bucks” program. Thus, the way in which the TFP is calculated is critical to this important safety-net program for those in our communities most in need.   

The USDA recently released its updated Thrifty Food Plan, 2021, which was the culmination of years of rigorous review of the methods used to calculate the TFP. In the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress mandated that the USDA conduct a reevaluation of the TFP by 2022 and then every 5 years thereafter. Congress directed the USDA to consider four key factors in its reevaluation: (i) current dietary guidelines, (ii) updated data on food prices, (iii) nutrient composition of foods, and (iv) typical consumption patterns. The reevaluation was conducted by a team of economists, nutrition scientists, and analysts at the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, along with other stakeholders. The USDA hosted multiple listening sessions throughout the reevaluation process with SNAP participants, advocates, researchers (including Dr. Pam Koch from the Tisch Food Center), and policymakers to gather lived experiences and insights regarding the efficacy of the SNAP program. 

Research has repeatedly shown that monthly SNAP benefits have historically been insufficient and leave families struggling with food insecurity at the end of the monthly benefit cycle when their funds have been depleted. On average, SNAP households redeem more than 75% of their benefits by the middle of the month leading to people consuming fewer calories at the end of the month and/or purchasing lower-cost options with little to no nutritional value. An estimated 14.6 million children receive SNAP - that is, 1 in 5 children in this country need these benefits to help put healthy food on their tables. When their families’ SNAP benefits are depleted long before the end of the month, many of these children struggle academically (i.e. lower test scores) and with behavior issues in school. By examining the four factors outlined by Congress, the USDA has developed an updated TFP more reflective of the realistic costs of purchasing adequate amounts of healthy foods and beverages in the U.S. 

The 2021 TFP comes with a significant change to the method by which it is calculated. For the first time, the TFP was developed without the constraint of being “cost-neutral.” For 45 years, the law required that any updates to the TFP must consider the cost of the food to remain constant and could only be adjusted to account for any inflation of food prices. This outdated cost-neutral constraint was overridden and made moot in the 2018 Farm Bill, which requires that the TFP reevaluation process be driven by assessing food and beverages that contribute to a healthy diet and then determining costs at which they could be realistically purchased by households with limited resources. 

The new TFP is broken down into “Market Baskets,” which are weekly quantities of different categories of foods and beverages with a “goal for Market Baskets to consist of nutrient-dense foods and beverages that support healthy dietary patterns and that are consistent with the purchasing patterns and consumption patterns of the diverse households in the United States.” The TFP Market Baskets are not prescriptive; people are not required to spend their SNAP benefits in accordance with the Market Baskets described in the TFP. To adhere to SNAP regulations, the 2021 TFP Market Baskets do not include: foods that are hot at the point of sale (e.g. hot soups or roasted chickens), consumed away from home (e.g. at restaurants), or alcoholic beverages. While the 2021 TFP is based on at-home preparation of foods, it does not assume that all foods are prepared from scratch, rather, the Market Baskets include common convenience items such as canned beans and frozen vegetables. Whether and to what extent the TFP should include prepared convenience foods is an issue the USDA plans to continue to consider given the changing nature of how food is sold in markets. 

One of the goals of the reevaluation was to ensure people had the flexibility to choose from a diverse set of foods that will provide the greatest health benefits for their individual circumstances. As the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, noted in a recent interview, we must trust people to purchase foods that best meet their families needs, “...the reality is SNAP families aren’t much different than typical American families in terms of the choices that they make. And we don’t want to stigmatize when they go to the grocery store - that they’re not going to be judged by folks in the line as their items are being cashed out.”    

Under the new TFP, the cost of a Market Basket for a family of four is $835.57 per month, a 21% increase from the prior TFP. This equals an increase of approximately $145.19 per month per household and thus approximately $36.30 per month for each of the four family members - or an increase of about $1.20 per person per day. This increase will take effect at the beginning of the Federal Fiscal Year 2022 beginning on October 1, 2021. 

The change comes at a critical time. Research continues to underscore the inextricable link between food and nutrition insecurity and negative health outcomes, which have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, COVID-related supply chain interruptions and rising food costs make accessing nutritious fresh food even more challenging. The Tisch Food Center applauds the USDA in taking this important step forward to support nutrition security and to help reduce health disparities. Programs like SNAP help families put food on the table and increasing such benefits is crucial for reducing food insecurity and improving the health and lives of all Americans. The modernized TFP and continued rigorous reevaluations thereof will help ensure that all Americans are able to access nutritious and affordable food.