USDA study finds SNAP participants have a hard time eating a healthy diet

Participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, face significant hurdles in putting nutritious food on the table each month, according to a USDA study released yesterday.

The study, based on research conducted in 2018, found that 88 percent of program participants struggled to maintain a healthy diet using SNAP benefits, with nearly two-thirds calling healthy foods cost-prohibitive. About one-third said they didn’t have time to prepare healthy meals; others cited a lack of transportation to grocery stores — a barrier addressed at least in part by SNAP’s recent shift to online purchasing — or inadequate storage for perishable foods. Participants who faced difficulty purchasing nutritious foods were more than twice as likely to be food-insufficient, the report found.

“No one in America should have to worry about whether they can put healthy food on the table for themselves or their children,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Today’s report makes clear we still have work to do to ensure all Americans not only have food to eat, but access to nutritious foods.”

Nearly 42 million Americans — the vast majority of them working families with children — rely on SNAP benefits, and participation swelled during the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, all participating families were eligible for emergency allotments that brought their monthly benefits up to the maximum level; families already at the benefit ceiling saw no increase. That changed this past March, when the USDA increased SNAP benefits by 15 percent, drawing on $3.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan. The increase, prompted by heightened food insecurity, provided an additional $27 a month to SNAP participants, or more than $100 in additional benefits to a family of four.

Anti-hunger advocates had spent years calling for the 15 percent boost. Stacy Dean, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said yesterday’s report highlights that far more needs to be done.

“SNAP benefits are a nutrition lifeline for millions of Americans,” she said. “So it’s vital that the program helps enable participants to achieve a healthy diet amidst the real-world challenges they face. The study findings released today indicate that we’re not yet there.”

The 15 percent SNAP increase ends in September, after which “families could face significant reductions in benefits,” Vilsack said in a call with Richard Besser, former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With that in mind, the USDA is re-evaluating the Thrifty Food Plan, the tool used to set SNAP benefit amounts that, since its creation in 1975, has been adjusted only for inflation and does not account for cost-of-living spikes in cities around the country, shifts in consumption patterns, or changes in the understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet. A 2018 report from the Urban Institute found that in 99 percent of U.S. counties, typical SNAP benefits fall short of covering average monthly meal costs.

As part of that re-evaluation, the USDA is conducting interviews with SNAP recipients to determine what parts of the program don’t meet their needs. “What we saw is that in the last 10 days of each month, as SNAP benefits were all used up, families made choices that were less nutritious,” Vilsack said. “That’s a wakeup call. We recognize that what was passed and what was authorized in terms of SNAP increases is limited.”

Beyond reassessing SNAP benefits, Vilsack pointed to other sources of hardship that fuel food and nutrition insecurity — notably, the persistently low minimum wage. “If you raise the minimum wage and provide a floor of wages that provide for families, you don’t need as much SNAP,” he said. “As long as we take the choice of not adjusting the minimum wage to meet the needs of working families today, we’re going to need to increase SNAP.”