For Hunger Awareness Month (September) Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton lived off of a typical food stamp benefit of $29 a week, or about $4.16 a day in an effort to experience what life is like on a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, budget. Stanton reported that by the end of the week he had lost 4 pounds, and had even skipped meals to get by. In an attempt to understand, we talked to Parke Wilde, a professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and author of US Food Policy Blog about SNAP, and having a healthy and adequate diet while on supplemental nutrition assistance.
For those who don't know, SNAP benefits are based on what is called the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP). The Thrifty Food Plan is designed as an optimization problem to minimize cost subject to specific nutrient requirements. The cost of the thrifty food plan varies by age, gender and number of people in the household. Wilde pointed out that for most, SNAP benefits are meant to be a supplement to people's incomes, not their entire food budget. Therefore, when Stanton lived off of $29 a week, the average payout for SNAP participants, realistically he should have been living off of about $41.70, TFP's weekly cost level for males age 19-50.
While the TFP is a budget designed to purchase in adequate diet as well as a nutrition education tool, SNAP does not dictate what someone eats. Wilde pointed out that when trying to answer the question if SNAP benefits are adequate to purchase a healthy and livable diet, it depends on one's expectations. The more constraints such as time, taste or diversity of food the more expensive the diet will be. SNAP benefits and the TFP do not factor in the time-cost of preparing food so participants, based on their time constraints, have to make the necessary trade offs between different recipes or prepared food. Depending on their tastes, they must also make the trade-offs between what foods to buy.
When asked about how to promote healthy eating, especially among SNAP participants, Wilde said he thought a couple different programs had potential. One of these programs being currently piloted is the healthy incentive pilot, a program that adds 30% of the cost of fresh fruit and vegetable purchases back to a participants SNAP card. While it is yet to be piloted, he also thought there may be potential in a variation of eligible foods program. For example, what would happen if soda were excluded? In this scenario it would be important to look at participation and nutrition outcomes in addition to the impact on buying soda.
For more information on the Thrifty Food Plan and to learn about the tradeoffs between nutrition quality and costs of food, see Joseph Llobrera, Flannery Campbell, and Wilde's Thrifty Food Plan Calculator.