Average meal costs more than SNAP covers


The maximum benefit from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fails to cover the cost of an average meal in more than 99 percent of United States counties, according to study released recently by the Urban Institute.

The average meal cost in Mississippi ranges from 10 percent more than the maximum SNAP benefit in Scott County to 53 percent more in Lafayette County. In Lamar County, the average cost of a meal is $2.29, which is 23 percent more than the SNAP benefit. An average meal in Forrest County is $2.39, 28 percent more than the federal food budget assistance program.

More than 42 million eligible, low-income people are benefited by SNAP. But even the maximum SNAP benefit falls short of low-income meal costs in 99 percent of US counties.

After the study was released, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is looking for innovative ideas to promote work and self-sufficiency among able-bodied adults participating in the department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  

The USDA is seeking input through a notice in the Federal Register. Department officials intend to use the input received to find improvements to SNAP policy and related services that can best assist SNAP participants return to self-sufficiency.

In the Urban Institute study, four of Mississippi’s counties fall among the 10 percent of counties with the largest gap between average meal cost and maximum SNAP benefit across the United States, including Hinds, Lafayette, Oktibbeha, and Yalobusha counties.

On a monthly basis, SNAP benefits fall short of the cost of an average meal by $46.50 per person.

In Fiscal Year 2015, SNAP provided about $920 million dollars in food benefits to a monthly average of 636,322 people in Mississippi. The program served 82.8 percent of those eligible for benefits in Mississippi in 2014. SNAP also has an economic multiplier effect; every dollar in new SNAP benefits results in $1.80 in total economic activity.

The average meal cost in the study is based on the Thrifty Food Plan (established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide a nutritionally adequate diet at minimal cost) and adjusted for geographic variations in food prices.

 SNAP is intended to supplement a family’s food budget. But for the 37 percent of SNAP households with zero net income, SNAP benefits are the only way to buy food.

This study is the latest research from the Urban Institute’s From Safety Net to Solid Ground project. The White House’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget seeks to reduce SNAP funding by about $213 billion over 10 years.

The 20 counties nationwide with the largest gap between average low-income meal cost and SNAP benefit in 2015 include high-cost urban areas – New York, San Francisco, and Alexandria, Virginia – as well as smaller rural counties. In these 20 counties, average low-income meal costs range from $3.13 to $4.39 – 68 to 136 percent higher than the SNAP per meal benefit.

The amount of SNAP benefits each person or family receives depends on such factors as household size, income level, and expense deductions that may lower the income used to determine the benefit amount.

This project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with additional support from the Annie ESNAP participants to. Casey Foundation.

In calling for the comments on SNAP eligibility for able-bodied participants, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the department wants to move SNAP recipients into the workforce.

“Long-term dependency has never been part of the American dream,” he said. “USDA’s goal is to move individuals and families from SNAP back to the workforce as the best long-term solution to poverty. Everyone who receives SNAP deserves an opportunity to become self-sufficient and build a productive, independent life.”

State agencies with flexibility can request a waiver of limiting SNAP benefits if unemployment is high or the area does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment.

 “Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency,” Perdue said. “Past decisions may have been the easy short-term choice, but USDA policies must change if they contribute to a long-term failure for many SNAP participants and their families.”

The Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Proposal, released on Feb. 12, proposes to limit waivers of the time limit for able-bodied SNAP participants to counties with 10 percent unemployment over 12 months.

“The SNAP safety net must be there for those unable to work due to disability or another legitimate reason,” Perdue said. “But for the able-bodied, we must reduce barriers to work, and hold both individuals and states accountable for participants getting and keeping jobs.”