by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: SNAP

Aug 17 2021

Splendid news! USDA updates Thrifty Food Plan and SNAP benefits

Yesterday, the USDA issued a press release: USDA Modernizes the Thrifty Food Plan, Updates SNAP Benefits

WASHINGTON, August 16, 2021 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, used to calculate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

This is a miracle, an event long sought by anti-hunger advocates.

The Thrifty Food Plan is supposed to be “the cost of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four.”

  • It is the basis for establishing SNAP benefits.
  • It was created in 1962.
  • All subsequent updates (until now) only adjusted for inflation but were otherwise required to be cost-neutral.

No wonder SNAP benefits were so inadequate.

Hope for change came with the 2018 Farm Bill.

In January, President Biden issued an Executive Order to review the Thrifty Food Plan.  USDA moved quickly on this in order to increase pandemic benefits permanently.

In its re-evaluation, USDA did as directed by Congress.  It based its report on current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns, and dietary guidance.

The New York Times has a graphic displaying these changes in greater detail, as well as the effects of these changes on benefits.

This may not seem like much of a difference, but it should help.

No surprise, some members of Congress have objected to the increased expenditures, estimated to amount to $20 billion a year.

SNAP expenditures have always been contentious.   But for now, those who need help will be getting a bit more.

Additional Resources

  • What is the TFP? (Blog)
  • The Thrifty Food Plan and SNAP Benefits (Website)
  • The TFP Re-Evaluation Process (Infographic)
  • Changes in Benefits by State (Tables)
  • TFP Listening Sessions (Summary) (Blog)
  • SNAP Participants’ Barriers to Healthy Eating (Infographic)
  • Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of SNAP Allotments (Report)
  • SNAP FY 2022 Cost-of-Living Adjustments (Memo)
Jun 29 2021

Guess what: USDA finds barriers to SNAP

Let’s hear it for USDA.  It’s asking tough questions about its programs and paying attention to what it’s finding out.

It has just issues a report on barriers to eating healthfully on SNAP (formerly, Food Stamps).

The press release summarizes the report.

The study, Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Allotments, conducted in 2018, finds that 88% of participants report encountering some type of hurdle to a healthy diet. The most common, reported by 61% of SNAP participants, is the cost of healthy foods. Participants who reported struggling to afford nutritious foods were more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity. Other barriers range from a lack of time to prepare meals from scratch (30%) to the need for transportation to the grocery store (19%) to no storage for fresh or cooked foods (14%).

An infographic displays this information.

The report comes in three parts:

From the interviews (page 52)

Overview

More broadly, processed foods—both those purchased at stores for home consumption and those eaten out—were seen as cheaper than healthier options…This perception was the same whether participants lived in urban or rural areas, had children or elderly in the household, or spoke Spanish or English.

Two interview excerpts

Just kind of life circumstances and it makes no sense to me that it is terribly cheap to eat like crap. Eating at [fast food ] every day is going to cost me $5 today and I would eat every day $5 a day but if I tried to go to [store] or some place that had good food and buy good food for a day, even just for myself, for $5, not going to happen. It’s going to be triple that or quadruple that or 10 times that depending on where you go.

Oh, just not processed. Not processed, not frozen. And I don’t really think carbs are very healthy myself, like breads and pastas, I don’t find necessary really. That’s mostly what you can afford, is the cheapest, for some stupid reason in stores, you know?

Policy options seem pretty obvious.  I hope USDA gives them a try.

Apr 20 2021

R.I.P. USDA’s food boxes

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the end of the Farmers to Families food box program.  As reported by The Counter,

The reality is the food box program was set up to respond to Covid. There were a lot of problems with it, a lot of problems,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Over the last year, we’ve reported on many of those problems—namely high prices, uneven distribution, and lack of oversight.

This program, which has cost at least $5.5 billion to date, was ostensibly supposed to help farmers by buying their produce and provide food to people who needed it by distributing it through food banks and pantries.

I say “ostensibly” because its real purpose was to undermine SNAP.

Food boxes were one of three ways the Trump Administration acted to reduce SNAP enrollments and expenditures (the other two were enforcement of work requirements and invocation of the public charge rule denying residency and citizenship to people who used public benefits, even benefits to which all residents are entitled).

To review the history of this program:   In 2018, Trump’s Budget proposed to replace some of SNAP benefits with “Harvest Boxes”—along the lines of those provided by Blue Apron, apparently.   The proposal provided few details.  It was immediately criticized for its lack of information about logistics, composition of the boxes, fresh foods, and choice.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue did not give up on the idea, however.  The Coronavirus pandemic gave him the excuse he needed to start the program, now called Farmers to Families.

This seemed reasonable in theory.  Distributors would collect unsold produce from farmers, pack it in boxes, and deliver the boxes to food banks.  Farmers would have income for what they produced; this would help people who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

In practice, small farmers were quickly dropped from the program, Black farmers were excluded, and people who got the boxes got whatever was in them—not always what was supposed to be in them.

Here’s what the USDA says the program delivered:

To date USDA contractors have delivered 157,996,398 of fresh produce, milk, dairy and cooked meats to disadvantaged Americans across the country

35.7 million food boxes invoiced in round one (May 15-June 30)

50.8 million food boxes invoiced in round two (July 1-August 31)

15.2 million food boxes invoiced in round two extensions (September 1 – September 18)

18.8 million food boxes invoiced in BOA Contracts (September 22 – October 31)

12.4 million food boxes invoiced in round four (November 1 – December 31)

25.1 million food boxes invoiced in round five (January 19 – April 30)

I say R.I.P.  The Biden Administration’s shoring up of SNAP is better policy for food assistance.

Assistance to small farmers is another matter entirely, and one that needs immediate attention.

 

Jan 6 2021

Trump’s Covid stimulus bill: how it affects food and nutrition

I’m trying to make sense of the new $900 billion stimulus bill signed by President Trump a week or so ago.  This is not easy to do; it’s 5500 pages of government-speak.

The bill has $26 billion for food and nutrition, of which half goes to Big Ag (sigh) and the other half to food assistance (good, but not enough).

Why the sigh for farm aid?  Here’s what the accounting looks like:

Big Agriculture: $13 billion on top of what else it got in 2020

  • $32 billion from the initial CARES Act
  • $4 billion as compensation for the trade war with China
  • $16 billion from the normal Farm Bill subsidies
  • $13 billion from the new stimulus package ($1.5 billion is for buying food products, including seafood)

Small Ag:  $225 million (not billion) for growers of specialty crops like fruits, nuts and vegetables.

SNAP: a 15% expansion through June 2021.  This will mean a lot to recipients, but it’s still not enough.

SNAP Fruit and vegetable incentives: $75 million (not billion) for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program,

Pandemic-EBT: this authorizes extra benefits for families who have kids normally getting subsidized school meals (but this has been delayed)

Food banks: $400 million (not billion) for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, $400 million (not billion) for milk,

Disadvantaged, veteran, and beginning farmers: $75 million (not billion)

International Food Assistance: $1.74 billion for Food for Peace grants and $230 million for the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program (note that this is the most the US has ever spent for these programs.

Pet foods: By congressional directive:

FDA is directed to provide an update on the investigation it is undertaking regarding canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and the manner in which it has released information to the public. The update shall include: the case definition FDA uses to include or exclude cases and the scientific work ongoing at the agency and with collaborating partners for identifying a causation of DCM; how FDA distinguishes cases of DCM due to genetic predisposition in certain breeds; how the agency plans to work with pet food companies and the veterinary cardiology community during the investigation; and the timing and nature of any future public reporting.

PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl) chemicals in food packaging: “directs FDA to review any new scientific information pertaining to PF AS chemicals and determine whether food packaging continues to meet the safety standards of a reasonable certainty of no harm under intended conditions of use.”

Restaurants: they get whatever they can out of the $284 billion Paycheck Protection Program.  The trade association for independent restaurants points out that this is nowhere near enough.  Even the Wall Street Journal says restaurants need help; their situation is bleak.

Business lunches: the full cost can now be deducted as a business expense, but nobody expects this to help restaurants much.

There is undoubtedly more, but that’s enough for now.

Politico has done a great job of covering these provisions, but is behind a paywall.  The Counter also has an especially good summary..

Oct 7 2020

The USDA’s food boxes: the saga continues

I cannot believe there is anything further to say about the Farmers to Families food boxes, the $4 billion USDA program that pays distributors to pick up dairy, meat, and produce, put it in boxes, and deliver the boxes to food banks, which then hand them out to people who need food.  My most recent post on the inclusion of a personal letter from President Trump in the boxes is here.

The USDA now says it has distributed 100 million of these boxes.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reports  that the USDA now requires the private companies that collect, pack, and deliver the boxes “to also stuff the Trump letters into the package — an expansion of the controversial letter policy with just…days until the presidential election.”

The Counter’s Jessica Fu (to whom I owe an apology for spelling her name incorrectly the last time I quoted her) writes that “Religious groups distributing Covid hunger-relief boxes are praying with recipients, taping Bible verses onto flaps, and soliciting donations. Some of these practices may violate federal regulations.”

The Hunger Task Force says that the program is discriminatory: “Wisconsin has been underrepresented in all rounds of the program while Wisconsin’s hungry line up by the carload for assistance that has now been completely severed.”

New York legislators are also complaining.  They wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue:

in the transition between the CFAP vendors selected for rounds two and three, miscommunication from USDA has left many food pantries in New York City suddenly without food, causing upheaval in the lives of those families who were relying on their local pantries for meals.  We understand that the new vendors selected for round three of this program were required to specify the counties or boroughs to which they would provide food. However, this has forced many nonprofits and food pantries who had relationships with vendors no longer serving their county or borough to scramble to find new partnerships, with no guidance from USDA, no overlap in service
provision, and nowhere to turn for help.

On the saga goes.  It would have made so much more sense—financially, logistically, and humanely—for the USDA to strengthen SNAP enrollments and benefits.  Some of this is happening anyway, but the long history of food banks tells us that they can never meet needs on an ongoing basis.  SNAP, imperfect as it is, still is a demonstrably better means of relieving food insecurity.

Sep 16 2020

Do Trump’s SNAP announcements violate the Hatch Act?

These USDA announcements about Disaster SNAP were forwarded to me by Kaitlyn Waugaman, MPH, RDN, LDN, who is in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The one from August 27:

The one on September 8, a few weeks closer to the November election:

At issue: whether the more recent announcement violates the Hatch Act, as amended in 2012, which generally prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan politics while on the job.  According to the US Office of Special Counsel, the President and Vice-President are excluded from the Act’s provisions.  But the New York Times has raised questions about Trump’s use of the White House to announce his candidacy.

This is another example of questionable use of the Presidency, just like Trump’s notes in the Farmers to Families food boxes that I wrote about earlier.

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Jul 21 2020

Report questions value of online SNAP shopping

The USDA has a pilot program that permits most low-income families enrolled in SNAP (formerly food stamps) to use their benefits to buy groceries online.

This could be convenient and protect participants from Covid-19 exposure.

But food will be more expensive: SNAP does not cover delivery costs.

Only a few retailers at the moment can accept SNAP benefit payments: Amazon, Walmart, Fresh Direct, and Safeway/Albertson’s.

This situation has induced the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) to publish a research report that raises some serious questions.

According to the press release, the pilot program exposes SNAP participants

to a loss of their privacy through “increased data collection and surveillance,” as well as risks involving “intrusive and manipulative online marketing techniques.” The report reveals how online grocers and retailers use an orchestrated array of digital techniques—including granular data profiling, predictive analytics, geolocation tracking, personalized online coupons, AI and machine learning —to promote unhealthy products, trigger impulsive purchases, and increase overall spending at check-out….The increased reliance on these services for daily food and other household purchases could expose these consumers to extensive data collection, as well as unfair and predatory techniques, exacerbating existing disparities in racial and health equity.”

On the basis of this report, several advocacy groups jointly wrote the USDA Secretary to make sure that these retailers do not unfairly target or take advantage of SNAP participants.

Our request is based on a new study by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), which finds that leading online grocery and e-commerce companies…are engaged in extensive data profiling, and deploying geolocation tracking, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and behavioral science techniques to track and target consumers, promote unhealthy products, and trigger impulsive purchases. Most of these operations are largely invisible, and CDD’s analysis of the companies’ privacy policies reveals that they fail to protect consumers from these data collection, targeting, and predatory marketing practices.

The letter has several “asks,” among them:

  • Forbid the use of techniques that take advantage of consumers’ psychological vulnerabilities, or employ manipulative practices designed to foster impulsive behavior.
  • Require participating retailers to prioritize healthier products in their ecommerce and online promotion efforts, discounts, and coupons.
  • Facilitate the participation of smaller, independent retailers, farmers markets and other local produce suppliers.

These groups also plan to ask Congress to conduct oversight hearings.

It’s terrific that these groups are keeping an eye on this program.

I’m curious to see the percentage of SNAP participants who use the program and are willing to pay the higher delivery costs.

I imagine that the big retailers are for it.  As was documented in Michele Simon’s 2012 report—Food Stamps: Follow the Money—for some time, retailers are SNAP’s greatest beneficiaries.

Jul 14 2020

Recent items on food insecurity

With millions of people out of work, food insecurity is becoming a bigger problem than it has been. Some recent items:

From Politico: “Stark racial disparities emerge as families struggle to get enough food”

The last time the government formally measured food insecurity nationally was in 2018. At that time, about 25 percent of Black households with children were food insecure. Today, the rate is about 39 percent, according to the latest analysis by the Northwestern economists, which is set to be published this week. For Hispanic households with kids, the rate was nearly 17 percent in 2018. Today, it is nearly 37 percent.

From Northwestern, a new report: “Food Insecurity During COVID-19 in Households with Children: Results by Racial and Ethnic Groups

Disparities in food insecurity across racial and ethnic groups are large. Across the eight weeks for which CHHPS microdata are available covering April 23–June 23, 41.1% of Black respondents’ households have experienced food insecurity in the prior week, as have 36.9% of Hispanic respondents’ households and 23.2% of White respondents’ households.

From the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project: “About 14 million children in America are not getting enough to eat”

Accounting for the number of children in these households, I find that 13.9 million children lived in a household characterized by child food insecurity in the third week in June, 5.6 times as many as in all of 2018 (2.5 million) and 2.7 times as many than did at the peak of the Great Recession in 2008 (5.1 million). During the week of June 19-23, 17.9 percent of children in the United States live in a household where an adult reported that the children are not getting enough to eat due to a lack of resources.

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “Boosting SNAP: 5 Reasons Why Households Need More”

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March included much-needed measures to temporarily increase SNAP benefits for many households and let state SNAP agencies temporarily modify procedures…But these temporary benefits didn’t help everyone who needs them, and they aren’t enough to help families afford food, given the challenges that COVID-19 and the downturn have presented. Here are five reasons why the next relief package needs to include an additional boost in SNAP benefits:

From The Counter: “Covid-19 has increased online SNAP purchases twentyfold—and Amazon, Walmart have a lock on virtually all those sales”

The USDA has been pushing online food sales for SNAP recipients, and COVID-19 is accelerating the trend.  The Counter article explains that

more than 750,000 households had used food stamps benefits online as of late June. That’s up from just 35,000 in March….As of early July, 43 states are approved to accept SNAP benefits online, and 39 have the program up and running.

The Counter also notes:

One thing is certain: At this point, two big retailers stand to benefit from the explosion in online SNAP sales. In 34 of the 39 states, Amazon and Walmart are the only participating grocers. The reasons why are likely logistical.. Few independent grocers have the web infrastructure to display and update their inventory online, making Amazon and Walmart a kind of duopoly by default. Even fewer have enough staff to assemble complex orders and deliver them to people’s homes. By contrast, Amazon and Walmart have been investing heavily in grocery delivery for years.

Comment

No matter how useful they are, online deliveries cost more and SNAP does not pay delivery costs.  Online also requires a computer and broadband access.  Do SNAP participants have these things?

The 750,000 housaeholds using the online system constitute a small fraction of the 19 million households enrolled in SNAP.

We have a long way to go to solve problems of food insecurity in this country.