How far does a SNAP dollar go?

Posted on by Nina Russell

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a $76 billion dollar safety net program serving 46 million low income Americans including those who are temporarily unemployed, seniors, the disabled, and the homeless. For the fiscal year 2015, the average monthly SNAP benefit per person was $127.42 and per household was $259.28. With 31 days per month on average, this amounts to $4.11 per person per day and $8.36 per household per day. SNAP benefits are distributed once a month to beneficiaries via an Electronic Benefit Transfer Card (EBT) with a magnetic strip (similar to a credit or debit card) for use at authorized food retail outlets. SNAP participants receive a Personal Identification Number (PIN) that protects benefits from unauthorized use by other people.

SNAP benefits are meant to help supplement an individual’s or a family’s income to help buy food and beverages. USDA expects most households to spend some of their own funds along with their SNAP benefits to buy the food they need.

The amount of SNAP benefits that a person or household receives is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan, which is an estimate of how much it costs to buy food to prepare nutritious, low-cost meals for a household. This estimate is changed every year to keep pace with food prices. However, it was crafted based on MyPyramid, and has not been updated to align with the recommendations included in the MyPlate dietary guidance for Americans. For someone trying to figure out how to do their weekly grocery shopping in accordance with the Thrifty Food Plan, the task is extremely difficult: the amounts of each food category are given in pounds per week, rather than in easy-to-understand units such as “1 gallon of milk” or “12 slices of bread.” There are options available such as the WIC Sample Meal Plan and the USDA Sample 2-Week Menus, but they are not ideal for SNAP grocery shopping. The Thrifty Food Plan market basket for each age and gender group meets 100 percent or more of the group’s Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) or Adequate Intakes (AIs) for vitamins A, C, B6 and B12, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, folate, zinc, copper, and fiber. However, the Thrifty Food Plan market basket does not meet the current RDA for vitamin E, nor the AI for potassium.

The budgetary constraints of SNAP are real. Since 2013, Members of Congress and celebrities have been drawing public attention to the difficulty of eating enough and eating healthily on the average SNAP recipient’s budget. But the budget is not the only constraint that can push some SNAP recipients towards eating unhealthy food. The first problem is grocery shopping without transportation. For those SNAP recipients living in food deserts, the closest grocery store is often miles away. Walking there can be a safety risk, and also may entail carrying groceries home without transportation limiting what SNAP participants can purchase. The second constraint is a lack of flexibility that makes it necessary to plan ahead for all purchases, so as not to waste food and beverages. A third constraint is limitations on time to prepare foods at home.

Additionally, SNAP is based on the Thrifty Food Budget, which assumes that recipients will be cooking the majority of their meals from scratch, but that is not always feasible. Research conducted at Tulane University estimated that households would need to devote over two hours a day for food preparation to follow the 1999 Thrifty Food Plan; with that in mind, the most recent Thrifty Food Plan includes some convenience foods, but doesn’t allow the purchase of hot ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores or restaurants. A fourth constraint is the distribution of SNAP benefits once a month, rather than biweekly or even weekly. Some SNAP recipients have cyclical patterns of food consumption, characterized by periods of overconsumption during the first part of the month and under-consumption at the end of the benefit cycle.

To overcome the first constraint of physical distance from sources of fresh food, the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture launched a Mobile Market in 2012. The program now includes two Mobile Market vehicles, which have sold more than $256,000 in fresh, local seasonal food from regional farms in 19 low-income neighborhoods. From 2012 to 2015, the average SNAP transaction value at these Mobile Markets has increased from $8 to $18 per customer. More than 70 percent of the Mobile Markets’ SNAP transactions are with repeat customers, and more than 50 percent of sales are with customers using some form of food assistance.

Relating to the third constraint, limitations on time to prepare foods at home, some SNAP recipients are now bringing a fresh perspective on food preparation using their SNAP dollars. Some food stamp-using foodies including college-educated recipients working low-paying or part-time jobs in the arts world and AmeriCorps volunteers, a group that has long had special dispensation to qualify for SNAP benefits, have demonstrated that beneficiaries can make healthy, tasty home-cooked meals on a tight budget, using monthly benefits at higher end retail grocery stores and local farmer’s markets. These young people are using fresh ingredients and cooking at home on their SNAP budgets.

To encourage SNAP recipients to purchase produce at farmer’s markets, in 2010, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and The Food Trust launched the Philly Food Bucks (PFB) program that provides customers with a $2 PFB coupon for fresh fruits and vegetables for every $5 spent using SNAP at participating markets. This incentive program encourages SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase fresh, local ingredients at participating farmers’ markets throughout the city. Since the introduction of Philly Food Bucks, SNAP sales at The Food Trust’s farmers’ markets has increased by more than 375%.

Looking forward, it is important to develop strategies to make the healthy choice for SNAP beneficiaries, the easy choice. Fruits and vegetables, grain products, meats, and dairy products comprise almost 90 percent of food that SNAP households buy, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. To help ensure that the grocery baskets of SNAP recipients are filled with MyPlate-aligned purchases, a Center for Health and Nutrition Innovation should be established at the USDA headed by a Chief Public Health Officer. This Center would harvest new learnings about nutrition and obesity prevention from projects conducted across the country, stimulate novel approaches, and support pilot initiatives on strategies to promote healthy nutrition in SNAP, including the application of new technologies and social media. The Office of Research and Analysis, Agricultural Research Service, Economic Research Service, and National Institute of Food and Agriculture all support research on SNAP, but there needs to be a greater focus on nutrition and health outcomes, technology transfer, and public health approaches to improve the dietary intake and health outcomes of SNAP program participants. Increased collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on SNAP to emphasize the program’s health impact is recommended.

Additionally, education is critical to making healthy choices and the SNAP program must do more in nutrition education. SNAP expenditures were about $70 billion in 2014 with 46 million beneficiaries. SNAP participants received approximately $1,504 annually on average in benefits. The USDA funds $375 million in SNAP Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grants, which translates to about $8 annually for nutrition education for each SNAP recipient. The USDA also supports a program in the amount of $31 million to incentivize SNAP participants to purchase fruits and vegetables. This adds an average of 66 cents annually on average for each of the 46 million SNAP participants to make healthy food choices. Overall, only $8.66 annually is being spent on nutrition education for each of the 46 million SNAP recipients. This is 0.58 percent of the program’s total expenditures. Tipping the scales towards health and education—spending more program funds on strategies to help SNAP beneficiaries make healthy food choices—must become a priority in the months and years ahead.

To determine eligibility for SNAP benefits, click here.

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