A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Study finds Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding insufficient for a healthy diet

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, only covers 43 to 60 percent of the cost of the federal nutrition guidelines, according to a study by researchers who say policymakers should consider that as they propose deep cuts to the program.

“Even though SNAP is not designed to cover all of the cost of food – it’s meant to be a supplemental food program – this study makes it clear that there would be many low-income households that would not be able to cover the gap needed to eat a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines,” Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, co-author of the study, said in a news release.

The report notes that the average gross income for all SNAP participants is $786 a month, and the expectation is that “SNAP households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their resources on food,” says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, estimated how much it would cost to fulfill the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines, which recommend filling half your plate with vegetables and fruits, the other with a lean protein and grains, along with a serving of low-fat dairy. Then it estimated the additional costs needed by SNAP recipients to adhere to it.

The researchers concluded that SNAP benefits are sufficient to meet the needs of children under the age of 8 and women over the age of 51, but are insufficient for older children, younger women, and men of any age.

It found that while the average monthly SNAP benefit is $254 per household, the cost of feeding a family of four according to the MyPlate guidelines is between $1,000 and $1,200 per month, depending on the number and age of children in the home.

The study used average monthly SNAP benefits for 2015 and monthly retail price data from the USDA to determine food costs. The calculations also took into account the time it takes to shop for and prepare the food, citing previous studies that show that in addition to food costs, the time it takes to prepare nutritious foods is a barrier to eating healthy.

“Even without including labor costs, a household of four would need to spend approximately $200 to $300 in addition to their SNAP benefits to follow the dietary guidelines,” said Haynes-Maslow, who is also an assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University.

SNAP funding based on guidelines that were replaced in 2010

The researchers pointed out that SNAP funding is based on the 2005 Food Pyramid nutrition guidelines, which MyPlate replaced in 2010. They encouraged policy makers to use current information on “the true costs of healthy eating” as they consider cuts to the program. They say proposed cuts to SNAP would “decrease the amount of benefits available for food purchases, and fewer people would have access to the program.”

President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal calls for $191 billion in cuts to the SNAP program over 10 years, a cut of more than 25 percent. The cuts would largely come from requiring a “state-match” that would shift 25 percent of the cost of the program to states by 2023, while giving them flexibility to cut benefits.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ 2018 budget proposal calls for even deeper cuts, which are “$4.87 billion below last year’s level and $2.6 million below the president’s budget request,” the House Appropriations Committee said in a June 27 news release. The Senate has no budget proposal yet.

“This research highlights how modest these benefits really are, which is something a lot of people, including many policymakers, probably don’t realize. In Kentucky, it’s just $1.36 per person per meal,” Ashley Spalding, research and policy associate for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said in a telephone interview. “And so with benefits already this modest, the recently proposed federal cuts would be devastating for our state.”

As of February, 651,889 Kentuckians received SNAP benefits. Of those, 41 percent were children, 25 percent were elderly or disabled, 52 percent lived in a rural county, and about 36 percent were working, Spalding wrote for the Ky Policy Blog, which details the impacts of the proposed SNAP cuts on Kentucky.

Spalding notes that Eastern Kentucky would have the most to lose from cuts, because the state’s 5th Congressional District has the sixth largest number of households on the program.

She also cites studies that show how SNAP lifts people out of poverty, and that people who receive SNAP when they are children have improved academic achievements, are more likely to graduate from high school, and ultimately have better long-term health outcomes.

Spalding said Kentucky is in no position to take on additional funding responsibilities for SNAP, as proposed in the Trump budget. The state ended the 2017 fiscal year on June 30 with a $138 million shortfall, and is projected to end the 2018 fiscal year with another $200 million shortfall. Gov. Matt Bevin recently ordered a 17 percent budget cut across most state agencies.

The Kentucky Association of Food Banks, representing seven food banks, distributed the equivalent of 58 million meals last year, which doesn’t even meet the demand, Tamara Sandberg, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, said in a Lexington Herald-Leader op-ed .

“Despite the large volume of food distributed by our network each year, we struggle to keep pace with the demand because of the high need for food assistance in Kentucky,” she wrote.

Sandberg urged the Kentucky congressional delegation to oppose any budget cuts to SNAP and other poverty-reduction programs. She noted that 65 percent of households served by the food banks also receive SNAP benefits.

She said, “Despite our best efforts to meet the need for food assistance among our neighbors, Kentucky’s food banks could never make up the difference if SNAP was cut.”

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