Skip to main content.

As food stamps get historic boost, reporters can outline benefits and limits for families

As food stamps get historic boost, reporters can outline benefits and limits for families

Picture of Giles Bruce
People on low-incomes and retirees buy food at the World Harvest Food Bank in Los Angeles.
People on low-incomes and retirees buy food at the World Harvest Food Bank in Los Angeles.
Photo Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

In October, the Biden administration gave the country’s largest food-assistance program its biggest boost ever, permanently increasing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by 25% above its pre-pandemic levels.

But will it be enough to eradicate hunger in the United States? It’s a question health journalists will be trying to answer in the months and years ahead as the consequences of the hike become more apparent. The potential impacts on health could be broad as well, since inadequate food access has been found to be a risk factor for conditions like obesity, diabetes and stroke.

“This may be the most important change in the half-century history of the modern program,” Dr. Hilary Seligman, who studies nutritional aid at the University of California in San Francisco, told the New York Times’ Jason DeParle in August.

Emergency increases to SNAP during the pandemic — as well as trillions of dollars in additional relief, like enhanced unemployment and stimulus payments — helped keep food insecurity levels flat in 2020, even as millions of Americans were put out of work. It prompted researchers and reporters to take a fresh look at the role of expanded food assistance in preventing people in the U.S. from going hungry.

“We now have definitive evidence that food hardship is responsive to government aid,” said H. Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan poverty researcher, told The Times. “The effect is crystal clear.” He added that next year’s data, which is typically released in September, could reveal that we’re “at the lowest level of food insecurity ever recorded, because of the government transfers,” he said.

The recent increase came about after the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, adjusted the formula for what constitutes a nutritious, budget-friendly meal plan, raising the average monthly benefit by $36, to $157. The maximum allotment will reach $835 a month for a family of four. About 42 million Americans rely on the program, at a cost to the government of $79.2 billion in the most recent year for which data was available.

Journalists have already been detailing the impact the bump in SNAP could have on their coverage areas.

In North Carolina, for example, more than 1.6 million people receive food and nutrition assistance, Nadia Bokhari reported in North Carolina Health News.

“I do food shopping twice a week and every time I spend $90 to $100, which is upsetting for me,” Nadiya Ahmady, a mother of three in Raleigh, told Bokhari. “I wish I could cook meat every day but I can only afford once or twice a week for my family.”

Ahmady and her husband lost work during the pandemic, and while they try to provide their kids with halal meat, which comes from animals slaughtered according to Islamic tradition, it tends to be more expensive, Bokhari reported.

In Indiana, more than 600,000 people are enrolled in the SNAP program, and will receive an additional 40 cents per person, per meal, as Holly V. Hays reported in the Indianapolis Star. While that might not sound like much, Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, told Hays this will provide Hoosiers using SNAP with a “more adequate amount to be able to purchase the nutritious things that they need.”

But critics contend the $20 billion annual increase to the program discourages work — and isn’t needed precisely because food insecurity hasn’t risen. “A lot of us warned that those further expansions were unnecessary and this provides additional support that that was true,” said Angela Rachidi, a hunger expert at the American Enterprise Institute, according to The Times. The Trump administration had also tried to make SNAP benefits harder to get for able-bodied adults, but a federal judge struck that plan down.

American schools, which became food banks of sorts during the pandemic, have been on the frontlines of the effort to keep kids fed. The USDA has provided schools waivers and funding to give free lunches to all students, regardless of income, through next June.

California recently became the first state to offer universal free breakfast and lunch in schools. Advocates said the decision, “which has a $650 million annual price tag, will reduce absenteeism and nurse visits while improving learning,” Soumya Karlamangla reported in The Times. Maine has already followed suit.

“I have a lot of experience over the years walking into cafeterias and seeing kids not eating a meal because, ‘My parent would be angry if I ate a school lunch. We can’t afford it,'” Mary Emerson, a Maine school nutrition director, told Rachel Ohm of the Portland Press Herald in Maine.

Daphne Hernandez, an associate professor at the Cizik School of Nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told me she believes the SNAP expansion will preserve the status quo but not come anywhere close to solving hunger in America. That, she said, will take a multifaceted approach.

“In order to significantly reduce food insecurity, not only do we need a really good economy, but we also need to address other social determinants of health,” she said.

“You can give people more money, but if they live in a food desert, where they completely don't have access to healthier foods, that's going to be a barrier. If they don't have access to transportation; if they have to wait for their aunt to come by every two weeks or something, that’s a barrier.

Nor does food assistance address nutritional literacy, Hernandez added. “Some people think they are eating healthy and don't realize the amount of sodium that, say, bologna has. They don't know how to read food labels.”

SNAP doesn’t reach everyone who struggles to put food on the table. Hernandez said Black and Hispanic families often face additional stigma and barriers when applying for assistance. In fact, food insecurity levels actually grew for those households in 2020. And many people make too much money to qualify for SNAP but still have trouble affording groceries.

Hernandez also noted that food prices are rising fast amid supply chain problems and growing labor costs, which could cancel out some of the gains in food aid.

“Food insecurity is such a complex issue,” she said. “I just don't think there's a silver bullet.”

Comments

Picture of

I can only comment on Washington State. Here, pandemic SNAP far exceeded normal SNAP. For example, all senior citizens automatically received the maximum benefit level as a supplement to the federal benefit. Other classifications of pandemic SNAP included aid for families with children in the schools - an education SNAP. When the federal pandemic SNAP levels ended, clients lost the extra benefits, as much as $180 per month in additional funding for most people. Then they received a benefit increase of about $25-$35. So in Washington State, the publicity about an increase differed from the reality of a sharp decrease. The state government has applied for waivers every month and has been able to continue pandemic benefits for August, September, October and November. But it is a month-to-month program, depending on whether the state has the money. It also doesn't cover the education SNAP. At some point, pandemic funding will end and a very large loss of benefits will end. During the summer of 2020, the state had the National Guard distribute boxes of produce from the state's farmers. This federal program dissipated when the Trump administration required the placement of a signed letter from Donald Trump in the food boxes. The farm food box program doesn't exist any longer, except for individuals who started their own non-profit. So in general, a steep decline in food benefits is going to occur. Washington State is issuing Safeway coupons to buy fresh produce. With respect to public school food distribution, the combination of low funding and stereotypes about what low income people eat led to useless distributions. One month, parents reported that their children brought back an onion and a green pepper as a school lunch. Parents were expected to use it to cook a Mexican recipe. The food distributions are very low quality, with provisions like microwave popcorn and boxes of dried macaroni and cheese. The incredible waste of federal USDA money and grocery store donation money on junk food is a scandal. In Tennessee there is a free grocery store, set up by a country music star. That is one of the model programs in the US.

Picture of

25% increase will be a blessing to me and I'll be so grateful. It won't be much seeing I only got $15.00 a month before covid.

Picture of

Apologies for the typo. "very large loss of benefits will end" - "end" should be replaced with "occur."

Leave A Comment

Announcements

Join us for a conversation on the latest COVID thread with Dr. Céline Gounder, a leading infectious disease expert, epidemiologist, medical analyst and host of the COVID podcast “Epidemic.” We'll discuss the emerging research, clarify what we know and don’t, and help attendees think through where the pandemic takes us from here. Sign-up here!

CONNECT WITH THE COMMUNITY

Follow Us

Facebook


Twitter

CHJ Icon
ReportingHealth