The Biden administration is overhauling food stamps by putting in place a permanent increase in grocery benefits, providing a 27% bump in aid that marks the biggest-ever increase for the program. The boost comes as a temporary increase of 15% was set to expire next month.
The boost will go into effect October 1 for the roughly 42 million people currently receiving food stamps, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on a conference call about the changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the official name for food stamps.
On a per-person basis, benefits on average will add about $36 per month to the pre-pandemic level of about $121 per person each month, the agency said. Increasing the benefits will boost the annual cost of the program by about $19 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.
The hike will help the 1 in 8 Americans who are now on food stamps afford a healthier diet given higher food prices, evolving nutritional guidelines over the years and changes in how Americans cook, Vilsack said. Congress in 2018 directed the USDA to reexamine the Thrifty Food Plan, a set of guidelines that determine the cost of a nutritious diet for cost-conscious families. The USDA's reassessment found that benefits are too low, the agency said Monday.
The new calculation "translates into about a 27% increase in the SNAP benefit," Vilsack said. "We need to modernize those assumptions based on what is happening in kitchens and homes across America."
About 80% of people on food stamps are working adults with children, people with disabilities or senior citizens living on small fixed incomes, Vilsack added. Providing a bigger food benefit will help reduce poverty, provide healthier food choices and lead to better health outcomes for children, he said.
"This program was incredibly important for Americans" during the pandemic, Vilsack said. "The pandemic sort of shocked people from thinking, 'I would never be involved in the SNAP program'."
The boost to benefits comes just as a temporary increase is set to expire next month. Due to the rising rates of hunger caused by the pandemic, the federal government stepped in last year and authorized a 15% boost to SNAP, but that increase will expire on September 30.
Thrifty Food Plan: What is it?
The Thrifty Food Plan was developed in the 1960s to determine a budget for a "nutritionally adequate diet for short-term or emergency use," according to the USDA.
Since then, the plan has been adjusted for inflation, but not for other factors, such as new research into nutrition, variations in local food costs or the specialized diets of people with specific health issues, according to food experts. Under the plan, an adult man should be able to afford a nutritious diet on $45.60 per week, although that diet would include almost two pounds of beans and about half a pound of beef per week.
The Thrifty Food Plan also assumes people have about two hours a day to spend on food preparation. Real households on SNAP benefits spend an average of less than one hour a day preparing meals, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank.
"You cannot convince me that people are spending an hour and half every day to prepare food from scratch," Vilsack said.
Research into the needs of families on food stamps found that many of them "had a difficult time making those healthy choices" after benefits ran low, he added.
Food stamp enrollment has swelled during the pandemic. In April, more than 42 million people were enrolled in SNAP, an increase of 15% from February 2020, just prior to the pandemic.