The 2021 reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) played a crucial role in mitigating food insecurity at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Congress takes up the reauthorization of the 2018 Farm Bill this year, program improvements stemming from the reevaluation are under threat.
The TFP is a grocery budget that is used to determine the maximum benefit amounts people can receive under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Since the beginning of 2023, Congress has been debating the priorities of the upcoming farm bill that will reauthorize SNAP, and Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) believes that SNAP spending can be curbed by targeting the cost increases made during the 2021 reevaluation. These increases were a much-needed and long-overdue reform that passed with bipartisan support and provided each person in a typical family with an additional $12 to $16 per month. If Congress does not keep them in place, millions of Americans will struggle to afford basic necessities, many could be forced into poverty, and some may even experience job loss, putting their own and their families’ economic security at high risk. Increased food insecurity, poverty, and job loss can also create a long-term drag on the economy. As farm bill negotiations continue, Congress must not sacrifice the TFP.
What is the Thrifty Food Plan?
The Thrifty Food Plan determines the maximum amount of SNAP benefits that eligible individuals or families receive as a fixed amount every month during a specified period. SNAP maximum allotments are updated each year based on the cost of the TFP, adjusted for inflation, and take effect October 1. The farm bill, the omnibus bill that implements food and agriculture policy, is reauthorized every five years and decides maximum SNAP values, which may be changed independently of the TFP. However, each farm bill is an opportunity to decide whether the TFP should be adjusted, which may in turn change SNAP allotments.
Functionally, the TFP is a financial plan developed in 1975 that utilizes a formula to estimate the lowest cost for groceries that support a nutritious diet for a “reference family” of four. This reference family includes a male and female adult ages 20 to 50 and two children, one ages 6 to 8 and the other ages 9 to 11. Before 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had only adjusted TFP grocery items while keeping the overall inflation-adjusted cost of the “market basket” the same; this effectively froze SNAP purchasing power at 1975 levels. The current market basket tracks grocery costs across 58 different food categories—and with the 21.03 percent increase that resulted from the 2021 TFP reevaluation, it is priced at $835.57 per month, providing the reference family an additional $4.79 per day.
The TFP increase was a bipartisan effort
Although the TFP was established in 1975, prior to its 2021 reevaluation, the plan had not been adequately updated since its implementation and failed to address rising grocery costs and cultural and health-related dietary needs. Indeed, prior to 2021, Congress had not reviewed the TFP since 2006, and that review only led to an update that maintained the inflation-adjusted costs of previous TFP iterations. According to an Urban Institute study, in 2020, the maximum daily SNAP benefit did not cover the “average cost of a modestly priced meal in 96 percent of US counties.” For at least the last decade prior to the reevaluation, academics and anti-hunger organizations sought to increase the value of SNAP benefits on the basis that the previous TFP formula failed to cover the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet. As part of the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill reauthorization, lawmakers directed the USDA to reevaluate the TFP formula and enact needed changes.
The TFP reevaluation was based on four criteria: current food prices, consumption patterns, food composition data, and the latest dietary guidance. The 2021 update did not alter the basic assumptions that determine the food plans, as part of the bipartisan nature of the agreement. The total basket price was only updated to reflect current grocery store prices and cover a wider variety of existing dietary needs.
The TFP helps millions of people
The initial increase in the TFP amounted to about an additional $12 to $16 per person per month. Exact amounts states received to fund SNAP differed by SNAP population size and ranged from a $13 million increase in Wyoming to a more than $2 billion increase in California. (see Figure 1) The increases made a huge difference: According to a recent study from the Public Policy Institute of California, changes to the TFP kept 110,000 Californians out of poverty. More broadly, the Urban Institute found that the increased SNAP benefits kept nearly 2.3 million additional people out of poverty in the fourth quarter of 2021 and reduced poverty by 4.7 percent relative to a projected scenario in which the TFP was not increased. Further, the study found that the TFP increase led to an 8.6 percent decrease in child poverty, with the largest decrease seen among Black children.
The increase in TFP benefits was not only an effective anti-poverty measure but also helped Americans not receiving SNAP find new or keep their current jobs. An updated analysis of a 2012 Center for American Progress report suggests that 11,988 jobs are supported per every $1 billion investment in SNAP because recipients spend their benefits in their local communities, with a particularly strong impact in food-related industries. In total, this means the TFP increase alone supports an estimated 240,088 jobs each year, and any potential SNAP cuts would create significant job losses.*
The TFP increase alone supports an estimated 240,088 jobs each year.
Food insecurity is worsening
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, SNAP emergency allotments increased benefits by 15 percent independently of the TFP, mitigating food insecurity across the country. However, when the federal government terminated expanded benefits on March 1, 2023, SNAP recipients in the 35 states that were still receiving emergency allotments lost a significant portion of their benefits, with some people more affected than others. Older adults were most deeply affected, as some saw their benefits drop from $281 to $23 per month. Now, with the extension of work requirements from age 49 to age 54, more older adults may be unable to access their benefits. Reverting to the prior TFP formula in order to reduce SNAP spending would be devastating for millions of Americans: Food insecurity likely would increase, and people would have to make difficult choices between feeding themselves and their families or paying their bills.
Today, the TFP does not account for other costs of living, nor does it accommodate specific dietary needs. For example, disabled people that experience severe food allergies often struggle to find hot meals that are covered under SNAP. Further, many people who live in food deserts, where food access is limited, encounter disproportionately high prices that prevent them from getting an adequate amount of food regardless of nutritional value. Many of these issues were not addressed in the current TFP, which suggests the 21 percent increase is likely too low.
It is critical to keep the TFP increase
Now, some policymakers want to curb SNAP spending. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Sen. Boozman, early skeptics of TFP calculations, believe the program’s cost is unsustainable; a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the reevaluated plan lacks metrics to measure outcomes, and Boozman is incorrectly using the finding as leverage to argue that the reevaluation itself was faulty. The end of COVID-19 relief funding has already forced many SNAP recipients over a financial cliff, and a further decrease in SNAP benefits would harm communities already experiencing food insecurity.
Nearly half of SNAP recipients come from historically marginalized communities. Black and Hispanic people, and women of color more generally, disproportionately experience food scarcity when compared with their white counterparts—and this gap has existed for more than three decades. Multiple forms of government stimulus such as the child tax credit expansion, SNAP emergency allotments, and the TFP reevaluation all played a role in decreasing food insecurity for these communities during the height of the pandemic. According to a study by the Urban Institute, the emergency programs combined had a broader effect on poverty in communities of color. For example, the difference between Black and white people experiencing poverty fell from 10 percent to 7.2 percent, and the difference between Hispanic and white people experiencing poverty fell from 13.5 percent to 11.4 percent. However, with most emergency pandemic stimulus having ended, the increase in SNAP benefits stemming from the TFP reevaluation is even more necessary for individuals and families to sustain themselves.
The changes that resulted from increasing TFP benefits are vital to preventing food insecurity for millions of people. Black people, women of color, older adults, and children are among those who have benefited from increased TFP benefits, something that would not have been possible without the changes to SNAP made in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill. With the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization process underway, reverting to the earlier TFP formula that kept purchasing power at 1975 levels or otherwise cutting SNAP benefits would put many people at risk of losing their jobs and result in many families going hungry, negatively affecting their health and life outcomes.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Heidi Peltier, a senior researcher at Brown University and director of programs for the university’s Costs of War Project, for reviewing the updated methodology of her 2012 analysis. The authors would also like to thank Lily Roberts, Madeline Shepherd, Doug Molof, Rose Khattar, and David Correa for their review, input, and guidance.
* According to an estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the difference in the average SNAP benefit per person per day with and without the TFP revision is $1.35. The authors used this to find the total per-year change in SNAP benefits from the revision, using average fiscal year 2022 program participants as a reference, and combined it with an updated 2012 analysis originally showing that every $1 billion invested in SNAP enables 13,718 people to find a new or keep their current job. The update was done by factoring in modern labor productivity data following guidance from Dr. Heidi Peltier, a co-author of the study. This productivity data can be found on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website.