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Food Stamps Get Permanent Boost, as USDA Updates the Thrifty Food Plan

Jason DeParle reported on the front page of Monday’s New York Times that, “The Biden administration has revised the nutrition standards of the food stamp program and prompted the largest permanent increase to benefits in the program’s history, a move that will give poor people more power to fill their grocery carts but add billions of dollars to the cost of a program that feeds one in eight Americans.

Under rules to be announced on Monday and put in place in October, average benefits will rise more than 25 percent from prepandemic levels. All 42 million people in the program will receive additional aid. The move does not require congressional approval, and unlike the large pandemic-era expansions, which are starting to expire, the changes are intended to last.”

“Under the new rules, average monthly benefits, $121 per person before the pandemic, will rise by $36. Although the increase may seem modest to middle-class families, proponents say it will reduce hunger, improve nutrition and lead to better health,” the Times article said.

Mr. DeParle noted that, “The changes are the result of a law passed in 2018 by a Republican Congress, which ordered a review of the program’s assumptions and gave the Agriculture Department four years to do it. In January, President Biden urged the department to speed up the process so that benefits ‘reflect the true cost of a basic healthy diet.'”

Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning reported earlier this week that, “The instrument for the benefit increase is an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture shopping list used to determine food stamp benefits, known as the Thrifty Food Plan. A provision in the 2018 Farm Bill called for an update of the market basket, and Biden ordered the department to proceed with the review two days after he took office.

“The U.S. has periodically reviewed the market basket, first established as the Economy Food Plan in 1961 and updated in 1975 as the Thrifty Food Plan, to adjust for changes in nutritional guidelines and food consumption patterns. The most recent review was in 2006. Yet the prior reviews were always constrained to keep costs constant.

“Biden Administration Prompts Largest Permanent Increase in Food Stamps,” by Jason DeParle. The New York Times (August 16, 2021).

“The 2018 Farm Bill, passed under Trump, imposed no cost constraint on the formula review.”

“Biden Administration Prompts Largest Permanent Increase in Food Stamps,” by Jason DeParle. The New York Times (August 16, 2021).

The Bloomberg article explained that, “Recipients are expected to spend 30% of their net income on food, with food stamps making up the deficit from the USDA food budget. Benefits can only be used to purchase groceries.

More than a quarter of the households enrolled in SNAP exhaust their monthly benefits in the first week after issuance, and more than half do so by the second week, according to a 2011 USDA study.”

Writing in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times, Erin B. Logan reported that, “The most recent increase to the program, which began in 1975, is part of a broader push by the Biden administration to expand America’s social safety net, which advocates have said proved inadequate to protect millions from poverty and food insecurity as the deadly virus emerged.

“Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in a statement described the increase as ‘long overdue’ and one that ‘takes into account the time constraints, nutritional needs, and budgets of working families in America today.'”

The L.A. Times article indicated that, “Republicans were skeptical of the USDA’s assessment before its release. Two Republican lawmakers requested that the Government Accountability Office review USDA’s assessment of the Thrifty Food Plan.

“‘The complexity of this process, and its likely impacts, create an urgent need for scrutiny, particularly on the heels of significant nutrition-related pandemic spending that has continued without rigorous oversight,’ Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas and U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania wrote last week in a letter to Gene Dodaro, the comptroller general of the U.S. and head of the GAO.”

Also this week, Helena Bottemiller Evich and Tatyana Monnay reported at Politico that, “The fact that the Biden administration is permanently increasing benefits for millions of Americans marks a monumental shift for the program, which has for years sparked partisan battles over the role and size of government. The move does not require congressional approval.

“During the Trump administration, USDA sought to limit access to benefits and impose stiffer work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents. House Republicans fought bitterly to impose more work requirements in the last farm bill, though the Senate ultimately disagreed and the program was kept as is.”

And Washington Post writer Laura Reiley reported this week that, “The increase is based on an update to the algorithm that governs the Thrifty Food Plan, which tracks the cost of 58 different categories of groceries needed to provide a budget-conscious diet for a family of four.

“‘Plain and simple, this is totally a game-changing moment,’ said Jamie Bussel a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy focused on health. ‘The changes have enormous potential to reduce, and potentially eliminate, child hunger and poverty in this country. This will reflect much more accurately what food actually costs in communities.'”

“Anti-hunger experts have long argued the Thrifty Food Plan’s metrics are out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face. They say the plan, formulated in the 1960s, was designed when many American families still had only one working parent, allowing the other parent more time for labor-intensive, but cheap, cooking from scratch,” the Post article said.

Meanwhile, Jesse Newman reported in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that, “Food prices are rising fast as U.S. food companies, facing the steepest inflation in a decade, pass along higher costs to consumers. At grocery stores, prices for foods from soup to meat are getting more expensive as large manufacturers such as General Mills Inc. and Campbell Soup Co. raise prices.”

The Journal article pointed out that, “The increases follow a rise in hunger last year as the coronavirus pandemic rocked the U.S. economy, closing businesses and pushing millions of people out of work, according to census data. Across the country, food banks and pantries struggled to cope with a surge in demand for their services as people sought free vegetables, milk and canned goods, hunger-relief organizations said.

“USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said a survey of families receiving food stamps showed that the current benefit isn’t enough to support purchases of healthy foods throughout an entire month, with recipients’ choices growing less healthy toward the end of the month.”

Keith Good Photo

Keith Good is the Farm Policy News editor for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, and compiled the daily News Summary from 2003-2015. He is a graduate of Purdue University (M.S.- Agricultural Economics), and Southern Illinois University School of Law.

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