On August 16, 2021 the Food and Nutrition Service (“FNS”), an agency housed within the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), released the 2021 version of the Thrifty Food Plan. The Thrifty Food Plan is used to calculate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) benefits participants receive.
Background on SNAP
SNAP, formally known as the Food Stamp Program, offers nutrition benefits to low-income households. Administered by FNS, SNAP is the largest of 15 federal nutrition assistance programs. Although SNAP is a federal program, state agencies are responsible for administering the program, ensuring program integrity, determining recipient eligibility, and issuing monthly benefits.
SNAP provides benefits to low-income people who are working for low wages or part-time; unemployed; receiving welfare or other public assistance payments; elderly or disabled and low-income; or homeless. The goal of SNAP is to supplement an individual’s or a family’s income to assist them in purchasing nutritious food. According to USDA in a press release announcing the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP helps to feed more than one in eight, or 42 million, Americans each month.
Background on the Thrifty Food Plan
According to FNS the Thrifty Food Plan “is an estimate of how much it costs to buy food to prepare nutritious, low-cost meals for your household.” The Thrifty Food Plan is the lowest cost of four USDA Food Plans and is the basis for the maximum SNAP benefit allotments. The USDA uses the other three food plans (the Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal-Cost Food Plans) along with the Thrifty Food Plan to inform research, education, and policy. The Thrifty Food Plan calculates the amount of SNAP benefits recipients can receive based on their income and family status. The Thrifty Food Plan uses “market baskets” as a unit of measurement, and USDA defines market baskets as the weekly amount of food and beverages that supports a healthy diet.
The Thrifty Food Plan was first put in place in 1975, and then was updated in 1983, 1999, and 2006. The previous plans kept the Thrifty Food Plan market baskets cost-neutral, meaning all updates were adjusted for inflation, but were otherwise equal to the real value of the Thrifty Food Plan when it was established in 1975. The 2021 reevaluated plan does not apply the cost-neutral constraint. The USDA cites language in the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (“the 2018 Farm Bill”) and Executive Order 14002 as authority to step away from the cost-neutral framework.
The 2018 Farm Bill
Prior to the 2018 Farm Bill, updates to the Thrifty Food Plan were up to the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture. However, all Secretaries of Agriculture since 1975 have adhered to the cost-neutral calculation as a matter of administrative policy. Through Section 4002 of the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress directed USDA to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022 and then every five years thereafter. The 2018 Farm Bill did so by amending section 3(u) of the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (7 U.S.C. §2012(u)) so that the section now reads:
“Thrifty food plan” means the diet required to feed a family of four persons consisting of a man and a woman twenty through fifty, a child six through eight, and a child nine through eleven years of age, determined in accordance with the Secretary’s calculations. By 2022 and at 5-year intervals thereafter, the Secretary shall re-evaluate and publish the market baskets of the thrifty food plan based on current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns, and dietary guidance. The cost of such diet shall be the basis for uniform allotments for all households regardless of their actual composition . . . .
The 2018 Farm Bill simply added the sentence that directs the Secretary to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022 and every subsequent 5 years. The remainder of the section was unchanged.
Executive Order 14002
In addition to the 2018 Farm Bill, the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan states “President Joseph R. Biden emphasized the commitment to the reevaluation in Executive Order 14002 on January 22, 2021.” Executive Order 14002 does not mention the Thrifty Food Plan directly, but states:
All executive departments and agencies … shall promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities to address the current economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. Agencies should specifically consider actions that facilitate better use of data and other means to improve access to, reduce unnecessary barriers to, and improve coordination among programs funded in whole or part by the Federal Government.
The White House Briefing Room in a statement explained the President in the Executive Order “will ask USDA [as directed by the 2018 Farm Bill] to consider beginning the process of revising the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the modern cost of a healthy diet.”
USDA Increases Benefits
Citing the 2018 Farm Bill and Executive Order 14002 as authority, FNS reevaluated the Thrifty Food Plan based on current dietary guidance and updated data on current food prices, food composition, and consumption patterns. The press release announcing the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan cites a USDA study published June 23, 2021, that found that 88% of SNAP participants reported facing some type of barrier to achieving a healthy diet. The most common reported barrier, reported by 61% of participants, was the affordability of healthy foods.
With this and other evidence collected by USDA through listening sessions, FNS and USDA concluded that the cost of the market baskets for the reference family is $835.37 based on June 2021 food prices. This is a 21.03% cost increase compared to the previous Thrifty Food Plan calculations. Thus, as a result of the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan, the average SNAP benefit will increase by $36.24 per person, per month, or $1.19 per day, for Fiscal Year 2022. The calculations the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan calls for will be put into place beginning on Oct. 1, 2021.
This cost increase does not include the funds participants received as part of any pandemic relief program. Meaning, the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan will lead to an increase in SNAP benefits that recipients received prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and not necessarily an increase in the SNAP benefits received as a result of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2021 and Other Extensions Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
What’s to Come
On August 13, 2021, three days before USDA released the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan, Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson, ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture, and Senator John Boozman, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”). The GAO is an independent, non-partisan congressional agency that conducts audits on government action and examines how taxpayer dollars are spent. The GAO initiates an audit or report at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees, or if GAO is statutorily required to conduct such an audit or report.
In their letter, the congressmen asked GAO to conduct an analysis on the methodologies, administrative practices, and legal authorities USDA used in coming up with the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan. The congressmen requested GAO return with a response by February 13, 2022. This deadline falls within the time frame that Congress will likely be in the midst of thinking about and discussing the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill.
To view FNS’s press release announcing the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan click here.
To read the text of the 2021 Thrifty Food Plan click here.
For more National Agricultural Law Center resources on federal nutrition programs, click here.