Congress has temporarily increased food assistance over the past year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but the benefits are still not sufficient. Even with Congress’s temporary increases, for example, the average food stamp recipient still receives only $2.30 per person, per meal, according to estimates from Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (Before the pandemic, the average benefit was closer to just $1.40 per person, per meal; without changes to law or administration policy, it would be slated to return to this level once the public health emergency ends.)
On Friday, however, President Biden took some important steps toward relieving this hardship. As part of an executive order on economic relief, Biden set in motion three major changes to food assistance programs.
The first would increase food access for millions of children who have not gotten their usual free or reduced-price school meals because of school closures. Congress created a program last year that gave temporary emergency nutrition benefits to these low-income kids. Biden’s order would increase the value of those food benefits by 15 percent. That would give a family with three children an additional $100 every two months, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said at a White House briefing.
A second change would ask the Agriculture Department (USDA) to increase the value of food stamp allotments for the poorest families. The Trump administration had previously said these households, which represent about one-third of food stamp recipients, were not eligible for an “emergency” food stamp program Congress passed last spring. (Some states challenged this interpretation.) Exactly how long it will take to change this executive branch policy, and how much more money these households would get in food benefits, is still unclear. But it’s likely that the poorest of the poor will get at least some additional food assistance in the days or months ahead.
Biden’s third policy would almost certainly take longer to implement — but would, of the three, ultimately be Biden’s most significant and enduring change to the nutrition-related safety net: revamping the “Thrifty Food Plan," the core element of the food stamp program.
The Thrifty Food Plan is the USDA’s estimate of a minimum, nutritionally sufficient diet and it’s the basis for determining how much households get in food stamp benefits. The plan’s cost has been fixed in inflation-adjusted terms since the 1970s. But nutrition advocates have argued for years that it does not reflect the full costs of a healthy diet, especially when taking into account the food preparation time required to keep within the plan’s budget.
For example, the USDA assumes households purchase the lowest-cost raw ingredients available and prepare most meals from scratch — for instance, that a poor family will forgo slightly more expensive canned beans in favor of dried ones, which then must be sorted, rinsed, soaked and then boiled. Food-stamp-eligible families do spend more time preparing their meals than households overall, but they still face much tighter time constraints than USDA estimates assume.
The 2018 farm bill instructed the Agriculture Department to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022. Biden’s announcement appears to hasten that process. With a Democratic administration overseeing it, this redesign seems likely to lead to these benefits becoming more generous (and, hopefully, adequate) for struggling families in the years ahead.
“We cannot, will not let people go hungry,” Biden said Friday about the immediate crisis. With any luck, that will be true even when this immediate crisis is over.