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What Congress and the Media Are Missing in the Food Stamp Debate

The only thing missing from the conversation about food stamp funding is the state of hunger in America today and how we should respond to it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Evgeny Atamanenko


The following article first appeared on the Nation.com. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here

To follow the congressional debate about food stamp (SNAP) funding in the Farm Bill—and media coverage of that debate—you would think that the relevant issues are the deficit,  rapists on food stampswaste and abuse, and defining our  biblical obligation to the poor.

The only thing missing from that conversation is the state of hunger in America today and how we should respond to it.

“A good part of the food stamp debate in Congress and the media is not an evidence-based conversation, it’s fantasy-based,” says Jim Weill, president of the  Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a nonprofit organization working to improve public policies to eradicate hunger in the US. 

Weill insists that there is plenty that we know about food stamps that Congress and the media are busy ignoring, including from the government’s own data: a January 2013 Institute of Medicine (IOM)/National Research Council (NRC)  report clearly described the inadequacy of SNAP benefits for most people struggling with hunger.

“The whole thrust of the report is that this is not a benefit allotment that’s adequate for people in most real world circumstances,” says Weill.

Since the average benefit for a SNAP recipient is just $4.50 per day, this conclusion shouldn’t come as much of a shock. But the authors—who comprised a blue ribbon panel charged with conducting a scientific analysis of benefit levels—did a good job breaking down exactly why the benefit allotment might come up so short. 

For starters, there is the “Thrifty Food Plan” (TFP) itself—a theoretical “market basket of food” that is supposed to represent “a nutritious diet at minimal cost.” The plan assumes that a consumer is able to mostly “purchase less expensive, unprocessed ingredients—such as vegetables and meat to make a stew.” It points out, however, that these ingredients require “substantial investment of the participants’ time to produce nutritious meals...inconsistent with the time available for most households at all income levels.”

But even if one did have time to shop and then slow-cook that family recipe for Granny’s Goodness Stew handed down through the generations—and not many low-wage workers or workers period do—the Thrifty Food Plan also assumes the availability of an assortment of “supermarkets and other food stores that offer a variety of healthy foods at a lower cost.” The authors note that “low-income and minority populations are more likely than other groups to experience limited access to supermarkets and other large retail outlets…that offer a broad range of healthy foods at reasonable cost… In addition, a lack of transportation infrastructure commonly leads to limited food access in small towns and rural areas.”

There is also a bizarre assumption in the SNAP program that food prices are consistent across the nation—from  Snohomish County, Washington, to  Neodesha, Kansas, to  New York City. Benefits are adjusted only for Hawaii and Alaska. 

“SNAP participants who live in locales with higher food prices find it difficult to meet their needs with the current benefit,” reads the report. (I would argue that SNAP participants who live anywhere in America find it difficult to meet their needs with a benefit of $4.50 a day.)

This problem of an unrealistic measure of food prices is compounded by the fact that the inflation cost adjustment for food stamps has a lag time of sixteen months. As the report notes, “Because of the impact of inflation and other factors on food prices, this lag in the benefit adjustment can significantly reduce the purchasing power of SNAP allotments.”

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