With food insecurity already present in the U.S., the coronavirus only worsened the issue nationwide. According to NPR, food insecurity more than doubled due to the economic crisis COVID-19 inflicted, impacting as many as 23% of households this year. Joe Biden and his administration announced changes to the United States’ food stamp program and its nutrition standards Monday to address the issue.
The changes will increase average benefits for food stamps in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program by more than 25%. This permanent increase in the levels of assistance is the largest single increase in the program’s history. Average monthly per-person benefits will rise from $121 to $157. Starting in October, the changes will be available indefinitely to all 42 million SNAP beneficiaries, The New York Times reported.
“It’s in our collective best interest to make sure that we’re helping folks through difficult times,” Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday. According to the Times, enrollment in SNAP has more than doubled since the early 2000s, and about 43% of beneficiaries are children. Throughout the pandemic, people relied on government assistance to feed their families.
Activists noted that previous levels of pre-pandemic SNAP assistance weren’t enough for families to survive and be healthy. Many households were forced to choose cheaper, less nutritious options or simply go hungry to have enough food. According to the Times, more than three-quarters of households in the program report using up their benefits in the first half of the monthly cycle.
Additionally, nearly 90% of SNAP recipients report running out of benefits by the end of the month. Advocates say this figure depicts the disconnect between the program calculations and its recipients’ lived experience.
“This outmoded food plan has limited SNAP’s purchasing power and made unrealistic assumptions about the cost of food, the time it takes to plan and prepare meals, and the constraints faced by time-strapped working families,” Lisa Davis, senior vice president of hunger charity Share Our Strength, said. “An updated Thrifty Food Plan would better reflect 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.”
Benefits are awarded on a sliding scale; the adjustments raise the maximum amount to $835 a month for a family of four, an increase of 21%.
The changes come at a time where multiple coronavirus relief bills will be ending. But while coronavirus relief bills increased the number of people receiving the maximum amount of benefits, they did not expand SNAP funding for the 40% of recipients who already qualified for this maximum, The Washington Post reported.
Monday’s announced revisions come under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan, a list of 58 food groups the government uses to estimate the cost of an economical and nutritious diet. Vilsack noted that changes to the algorithm were needed since families now have different consumption patterns than when the program was last updated. The program was last updated in 2006. Before that, it relied on data from 1999.
They follow a law passed by Congress in 2018 that ordered the Agriculture Department to complete a program review within four years. In his first month of office, Biden told the department to speed up the process so that benefits “reflect the true cost of a basic healthy diet.”
“We know this is a program that reduces poverty, we know this is a program that improves health outcomes for kids, we know based on the data that it also results in better educational achievement because kids are fed,” Vilsack said.
The new plan will increase the program’s costs by about $20 billion a year, Vilsack confirmed. He added that the program’s $79 billion annual costs would help “stabilize our democracy.”
Increasing SNAP benefits not only works to end national hunger but severely impacts the overall health of children. Balanced nutrition is proven to improve testing scores and lower hospital admissions and other troubles children face.
“Plain and simple, this is totally a game-changing moment,” Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy focused on health, said. “The changes have enormous potential to reduce, and potentially eliminate, child hunger and poverty in this country. This will reflect much more accurately what food actually costs in communities.”
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