(Photograph via office of Rep. Barbara Lee)

“Why would Members of Congress commit to spend only $4.50 a day on food and live on the budget of the average SNAP recipient? . . . Almost 30 of my colleagues and I are taking the SNAP Challenge — spending, on average, $1.50 a meal to highlight how critical this lifeline is for so many families.”

— Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), writing in the Huffington Post , June 12, 2013

The “SNAP Challenge” is everywhere. More than two dozen Democrats, organized by Rep. Lee, announced they would take the challenge to highlight what they consider damaging cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for food stamps. Newark mayor and Senate hopeful Cory Booker took a high-profile plunge into the Snap Challenge last year. Former representative Anthony Weiner, running for New York City mayor, is also participating.

During the challenge, lawmakers have been tweeting, under the hashtag #snapchallenge, pictures of the pathetic-looking meals they had assembled from their measly allotment. To wit:

My first meal of the day taking the #SNAPChallenge: scrambled eggs, milk, & a piece of white bread. pic.twitter.com/IGX0CNvIuX

— John Conyers (@repjohnconyers) June 13, 2013

Food and Research Action Center, a hunger advocacy group, has been a prime promoter of the SNAP Challenge. Ellen Vollinger, FRAC’s legal director, said that because the congressional debate often centers around the program’s nearly $80 billion budget, the $4.50 figure is intended to “put in concrete terms” what the SNAP assistance means to ordinary Americans. A GOP-crafted farm bill being debated in the House would cut funding for SNAP.

We wondered: Does $4.50 really reflect the reality of receiving SNAP assistance?  (We obviously take no position on whether benefits should be increased or decreased.)


The Facts

As we noted,  the food stamp program is now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The name “food stamps” was dropped after the government replaced the paper stamps with a plastic Electronic Benefits Transfer card that is refilled every month. Retailers that accept SNAP benefits must sell foods from the four staple food groups; the benefits cannot be used for beer, wine, liquor or tobacco products. 

The most recent monthly USDA statistics show that the number of food stamp recipients has topped 47 million, an increase of nearly 70 percent since 2008.  Our colleague Eli Saslow earlier this year wrote a fascinating article about the boom-and-bust cycle created by SNAP in the Rhode Island  town of Woonsocket, where one-third of the residents receive it.

The average monthly benefit for one person is $133.44, which is where the $4.50 a day figure comes from. But note that the name of the program refers to “supplemental” assistance. SNAP is not intended to be the only source of income for food.

According to the USDA, about 75 percent of SNAP participants use their own money, in addition to SNAP benefits, to buy food. That is because the program is designed so that the assumed family contribution to the food budget (which is set at 30 percent of net income after deductions) plus the actual monthly benefit will always equal the maximum benefit.

USDA data show that only 20 percent of SNAP participants have no income, while the rest either earn wages or receive government assistance. (The SNAP benefits are reduced according to a formula that lowers the maximum benefit by 30 percent of net income; about 32 percent of households with children receive the maximum benefit.) The data also show that SNAP recipients spend a larger share of their overall income on food than nonparticipants with a similar income.

Moreover, the maximum monthly benefits can quickly climb as the size of the household grows. A family of four, for instance, could receive as much as $668 a month for food. Indeed, households with children receive 71 percent of all SNAP benefits.

Judging from the lawmakers’ tweets, some are assuming the $4.50 means that just $1.50 can be spent per meal. That certainly might be difficult with take-out food, but SNAP generally is intended to be used to buy food for home-cooked meals. The USDA has created official food plans that represent what it describes as “a nutritious diet at four different cost levels.”

The maximum SNAP benefit is intended to cover nearly 114 percent of the “Thrifty plan,” the lowest-cost option, which for a family of four would cost between $551 and $632 a month. The three other plans cost progressively more.

USDA also publishes an extensive list of recipes that can be used to produce a healthy low-cost meal. A search for dishes costing $4.50 or less turned up 444 options, many of which were for eight or more servings. Dishes costing less than $1.50 produced 116 results.

Indeed, the #snapchallenge hashtag has led some conservatives to fight back with their own Twitter accounts of meeting the challenge. Donny Ferguson, communications director for Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.), declared he could easily live on even reduced SNAP benefits. Kristina Ribali, director of new media at FreedomWorks, tweeted out her weekly groceries for a family of four — purchased for $70.64.

27 items for $70.64. #snapchallenge as seen in @TheTransom. Hey congressmen, next time take a housewife shopping. pic.twitter.com/jeNJnw9V72

— Kristina Ribali (@KristinaRibali) June 14, 2013

Nevertheless, FRAC says that the current benefit levels are inadequate, pointing to a recent Institute of Medicine report. More than 25 Democratic lawmakers this week proposed that SNAP benefits be boosted to cover USDA’s “low-cost plan,” which would be an increase of about 30 percent.

A report published this year that extensively interviewed SNAP participants found that they “typically manage their food budgets with great care” and are “usually strategic in trying to stretch their SNAP benefits out over the course of the month.”  SNAP participants are also avid coupon clippers and shop carefully for bargains, according to the report.

“SNAP considerably eased the tradeoffs families had to make when their budgets were in the red,” the report said. “It enabled households to reallocate cash resources they would otherwise have spent on food to other pressing obligations such as the light bill, a student loan payment, or even the rent.” The report also noted: “Though for many households SNAP is not designed to cover all of families’ food needs, respondents often believe it ought to do so.”

Moreover, a 2010 study by the Urban Institute concluded that participating in SNAP “reduces the likelihood of being food insecure by roughly 30 percent.” USDA also says that “the diets of SNAP participants, as measured by the Healthy Eating Index, are similar to that of higher-income Americans.”  (This is in part because the overall diet of Americans is already relatively poor.)

Lee, in an interview, defended the use of the $4.50 figure in the SNAP Challenge, saying that many recipients don’t view it as only a supplement. She said that she had relied on food stamps as a single mother raising two children in the 1970s. “It was a bridge over troubled water. That is what I used to feed my kids,” she said. “Believe me: Millions of people are using their SNAP benefits to feed their kids.”


The Pinocchio Test

We can understand the desire to translate obscure budget debates involving billions of dollars into a ground-level reality. But buying food based only on the average SNAP benefit for a single person gives a misleading impression of the program and its intended impact.

The SNAP program is intended as a supplement; it is not expected to be the only source of income for food. Various reports have indicated that it has had a positive impact, in particular in raising families out of poverty and helping people pay nonfood bills. By suggesting that SNAP is intended to be the only source of food income, even if some recipients use it in that way, lawmakers stretch the purpose of the program.


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