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SNAP Benefits Miss Mark in 78% of US Counties, Fueling Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is heightened as the cost of a moderately priced meal surpasses SNAP per-meal benefits by 15 percent, an RWJF-funded study found.

Amid soaring food prices in 2022, SNAP benefits fall short of covering moderately priced meals in 78 percent of United States counties, a new Urban Institute survey revealed.

SNAP, the US's largest program to combat food insecurity, adjusts its benefits yearly in response to food price inflation through a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). In the final quarter of 2022, a modestly priced meal cost $3.14, surpassing the maximum SNAP per-meal benefit of $2.74 by 15 percent.

Separate data from 2022 reveals that food costs have seen the highest year-on-year inflation rate in 43 years, stoking fears of escalating food insecurity. The food index alone saw an 11.4 percent hike over the previous year, the steepest 12-month leap since May 1979.

This growing worry over escalating food insecurity is likely to intensify as federal pandemic aid, which had augmented food-stamp benefits, expired earlier this year.

Monthly SNAP benefits experienced cuts of at least $95 in several states as of March. During the pandemic, around 42 million Americans on food stamps received an additional $95 each month. Now, with the discontinuation of this aid, over three-fourths of the nation’s counties have lost this vital lifeline.

There is, however, a silver lining, the survey revealed. The 2023 cost-of-living adjustment implemented by the US Department of Agriculture, operational from Oct. 13, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023, yielded significant positive changes. According to an RWJF survey, 'adequate' benefits were reported in 687 counties, up from just 27. In counties where SNAP benefits fell short of average meal costs it fell from 99 percent to 78 percent.

“Rising food costs due to inflation caused many families to experience food insecurity. Our research showed that because of the unprecedented food inflation in 2022, the share of counties where SNAP benefits fell short increased to 99 percent,” said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “The latest cost-of-living adjustments brought that down to 78 percent but we’re still seeing many communities who remain food insecure caused by these inadequacies in benefit amounts.”

Post-2023 COLA, the gap between SNAP benefits and meal costs shrunk from 75 percent to 50 percent in the five counties with the largest gaps. But urban counties still grapple with a wider chasm between meal costs and received benefits. Four of the five counties suffering from the largest gaps are rural—Leelanau County in Michigan, Teton County in Idaho, and Lincoln and Teton counties in Wyoming.

In contrast, the urban areas bearing the brunt of the disparity are New York County, NY; Marin County and San Francisco County, CA; Butte County, ID; and Arlington County, VA.

Food insecurity, strongly linked with income, is a prominent social determinant of health and is closely associated with clinical outcomes, especially for diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

Studies have indicated that even minor increases in SNAP benefits could significantly improve dietary habits, reducing the risk of chronic diseases.

However, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity, leading to canceled or delayed care, particularly among minorities who are disproportionately affected.

The impact of food insecurity is not distributed evenly among demographics. Black individuals are twice as likely to face food insecurity, while Hispanic individuals are over 1.5 times as likely as White individuals to experience it.

Waxman highlighted the importance of the Farm Bill, currently up for reauthorization, in which over 80 percent of spending is allocated to nutrition programs like SNAP.

However, some policymakers are calling for cuts to SNAP spending. The recent debt ceiling agreement has further limited access by introducing stringent work requirements and benefit time limits for many adults aged 54 and younger without dependent children, despite evidence suggesting these regulations do not meaningfully enhance employment outcomes but significantly reduce SNAP participation.

“As pandemic protections expire and food costs remain high, maximizing SNAP benefits is crucial to ensure that families living with a low-income are able to put food on the table,” said Gina R. Hijjawi, senior program officer at the RWJF. “Data shows that families are still struggling to afford food, and the SNAP program could do much better to actually help them.”

For low-income households, losing SNAP could escalate food insecurity, especially as many pandemic protections expire and food prices remain high. To fortify and expand SNAP, Congress could abolish strict time limits on SNAP benefits, allow for two COLAs per year during high inflation, and ensure SNAP benefits cover the cost of a modestl

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