How Academy Members Can Help Make the SNAP Program Nutritionally Stronger

By

Academy President Kevin L. Sauer, PhD, RDN, LD, FAND
Past Undersecretary of Food and Nutrition Service Kevin Concannon, MSW
Past Food Research & Action Center President Jim Weill, JD

As past and current board members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, we believe deeply in the vision of this organization: a world where people thrive through the transformative power of food and nutrition. But, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the skyrocketing levels of food insecurity exposing even more widespread nutrition insecurity and disproportionately among communities of color, this vision will be met only if we guarantee that all people can access and afford a healthful diet. Our country’s greatest nutrition program tool to help low-resource individuals afford a healthful diet is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Academy members are in a unique position to support SNAP — and in turn to support our inspired vision.

In the 2018 bipartisan Farm Bill, the legislation that authorizes funding for SNAP and other crucial federal nutrition programs, members of Congress called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to review and update the Thrifty Food Plan.

What Is the Thrifty Food Plan and Its Connection to SNAP

USDA began developing basic food plans for different cost levels in the 1930s to provide consumers with practical and economic advice on healthful eating.” USDA has the following four food plans: the Thrifty Food Plan; Low-Cost Food Plan; Moderate-Cost Food Plan; and Liberal Food Plan. USDA periodically reviews the TFP to adjust for changes in nutritional guidelines and food consumption patterns, with the most recent review taking place in 2006.

Why is the review and update of the TFP so critical? Past federal reviews of the pricing and adequacy of the Thrifty Food Plan unfortunately have been constrained in adjusting the plan in order to abide cost constraints on the TFP which in turn ultimately governs the monthly maximum benefit for SNAP households.

Why Should Academy Members Care About the Thrifty Food Plan Review and Update?

In late May 2021, the Academy’s Board of Directors, with the help of Academy staff, conducted a listening session with members, ranging from researchers and program administrators to frontline nutrition educators, all working on addressing nutrition security. This session explored the limitations of the current TFP and developed recommendations for USDA to consider while updating the TFP. Academy members recommended that the TFP must:

  • Address racial and ethnic health disparities
  • Accurately consider affordability of a diet consistent with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
  • Address realistic transportation and access barriers
  • Accurately take into account the time needed to procure and prepare food
  • Acknowledge the limitations of low-resourced families to access proper equipment to store and prepare food.

As food and nutrition professionals and Academy members, we know better than anyone that healthful dietary patterns are the result of having the proper knowledge of food and nutrition, access to healthful food items, adequate resources to obtain such items, as well as the environmental supports to establish and maintain healthy behaviors. We can not expect SNAP recipients to meet these healthful eating patterns if the minimum benefit does not accurately reflect how families procure and prepare food.

One of the most prominent themes of the member discussion was that the Thrifty Food Plan review must be centered around racial and ethnic health disparities. One member shared: “I see the challenges Oklahoma tribal communities have in accessing affordable and culturally appropriate, nutritious foods. Traditional foods such as hominy, wild rice, blue cornmeal and bison, just to name a few, are not accessible or affordable and often sold in specialty stores that may not accept SNAP benefits or participants have to travel long distances to find them in larger grocery stores.”

Another member explained: “The TFP weaknesses are exacerbated by a range of other inequities such as: less public transportation for people of color and higher costs of transportation to stores; the cap in SNAP on the deduction of high shelter costs from countable income presumably disproportionately harms families of color who pay more than white families for the same shelter; as a result, the amounts of cash the SNAP system assumes are available for food are unreasonable generally, but more so for people of color. The greater amounts of work under more tiring conditions for low-paid workers means that, on average, people of color work more and harder for the same amount of money as whites, making the shopping and preparation time assumptions of TFP even more unreasonable for them.”

In a recently released study from USDA, 81% of SNAP participants reported challenges to accessing a healthful diet and 61% attributed that to the affordability of the food, given the shortcomings of SNAP allotments. This aligns with statements of Academy members shared during the May 2021 listening session: “I work for SNAP-Ed and I often hear from SNAP recipients that they have to make hard choices to make their money stretch. They often know that they are choosing quantity over quality.

We look forward to seeing how USDA will update the Thrifty Food Plan. We are hopeful that this update will assure that some of the most vulnerable Americans have true access to a nutritionally adequate diet that aligns with the most recent Dietary Guidelines and reflects culturally appropriate market baskets, realistic time expectations for shopping and meal preparation and transportation challenges.

We encourage all Academy members to be leaders in nutrition security by getting involved with the Academy’s advocacy efforts to tackle health equity through investing in federal nutrition programs. Join the Academy’s Nutrition Security Affinity Group, which is open to all Academy members, convening the first Wednesday of each month. Register here.

Working together, we can build a world where people thrive through the transformative power of food and nutrition and in so doing collectively advance our professional values and commitments to our patients, clients, communities and society at large.

Submitted August 13, 2021