USDA boosts food stamps after revised calculation of basic diet

Thrifty Food Plan revisions would mean more than 20 percent boost to benefits for family of four

Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson asked the GAO to review the USDA’s work leading to the boost in food stamps.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson asked the GAO to review the USDA’s work leading to the boost in food stamps. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 16, 2021 at 1:32pm

The Agriculture Department is changing the way it calculates food stamp benefits to address what critics have long called inadequate aid to the nation’s poor, but the resulting $20 billion a year increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is already drawing Republican scrutiny.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced revisions Monday to the Thrifty Food Plan to help individuals and families receiving monthly food benefits through SNAP to better afford healthy basic diets. 

The changes will result in a 21 percent increase in maximum benefits for a family of four, raising the monthly amount to $835, the department said. The average increase will be 25 percent at other benefit levels, resulting in a boost of $36 per person per month, the department said. 

The Thrifty Food Plan uses a national average of food expenditures for a family of four, defined as an adult male and female ages 19 to 50 and two children under age 12. The last review was done 15 years ago.

“We wanted to make sure at the end of the day we had a Thrifty Food Plan calculation that indeed supported that family seeking a healthy diet,” Vilsack told reporters. “This is a big day.”

In addition to reviewing data and updates to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Agriculture Department surveyed SNAP recipients who said their benefits did not last through the month, Vilsack said, adding “that at the end of the month, SNAP families had a very difficult time making those healthy choices. The benefit just didn’t allow them to continue to make the kind of choices they would be able to make at the beginning of the month when they got their benefits.”

Unlike the temporary 15 percent SNAP benefit increase that Congress has provided during the COVID-19 pandemic, the changes to the food plan constitute long-term higher benefits. Congress could revisit those changes during the writing of the 2023 farm bill, especially if Republicans take control of one or both chambers in 2022.   

The Thrifty Food Plan is used to calculate benefits, and the 2018 farm bill directed the department to review the plan by fiscal 2022 and to do follow-up evaluations every five years with market baskets using current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns and dietary guidance.

President Joe Biden underscored the need for the review with a request in his Jan. 22 order to the department to “consider beginning the process of revising the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the modern cost of a healthy basic diet” provided by SNAP.

The changes announced Monday will increase SNAP’s price tag by an estimated $20 billion a year. Congress provided $114 billion in mandatory funding for fiscal 2021, $45.7 billion above fiscal 2020, to reflect higher enrollments related to lost jobs and reduced hours because of COVID-19 restrictions and temporary benefit increases slated to end on Sept. 30. House and Senate appropriators are proposing $105.8 billion in SNAP funding for fiscal 2022.

The prospects of a higher price tag for the program prompted Republican ranking members on the House and Senate Agriculture committees to request a Government Accountability Office review of the data and modeling as well as other parts of the process that the Agriculture Department used to arrive at the decision to increase benefits.

In a letter to the GAO on Friday, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., cited 11 areas the department should review and set a Feb. 13, 2022, deadline for completion. Among the things the lawmakers want to know is how much involvement the White House had in the review and the legal justification for changing the long-standing position that Thrifty Food Plan reevaluations are done on a cost-neutral basis.  

“While we expect this process will elicit an increase to the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — and subsequently monthly SNAP allotments — questions remain as to how the Department has gone about this review and update, including their methodologies, administrative practices, and legal authorities,” Thompson and Boozman wrote.

Vilsack noted that a Republican Congress passed the 2018 farm bill and Republican President Donald Trump signed the bill that called for the review.

“The Congress didn’t say the only way you can do this is a cost-neutral way. There were no constraints on the choices that we had to make or could make in connection with this evaluation in the farm bill,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said much has changed in the 15 years since the last review. Among those changes are higher food costs, more use of convenience foods rather than preparing each meal from scratch, and three updates to Dietary Guidelines for Americans that emphasize consumption of foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Lisa Davis, president of the anti-hunger group Share Our Strength, said the changes reflect how recipients of benefits live.

“The updated Thrifty Food Plan better reflects the way families live today, where working households do not have unlimited hours to prepare food from scratch and modern dietary guidelines advise a wider variety of foods, particularly leafy greens and lean proteins, which can be more costly,” she said. “We are pleased to see this long overdue update to the Thrifty Food Plan, which, for decades, grossly underestimated the amount it cost to feed a family a basic, healthy diet.”