Study: Food Assistance Falls Far Short of Meeting the Needs of America’s Food Insecure

By Joan McCarter

A volunteer loads food into the trunk of vehicles during a ''Let's Feed L.A. County'' drive thru food distribution by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and the office of Supervisor Hilda Solis on Friday, April 23, 2021, in Rosemead, California. (Ringo Chiu via AP)
A volunteer loads food into the trunk of vehicles during drive-thru food distribution in Los Angeles.

Congress stepped up for food insecure people in this pandemic, boosting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds by 15%. But that still left hungry people in 41% of U.S. counties where SNAP benefits fall short in covering the cost of meals by nearly 50 cents per meal. The boost to the program from the COVID-19 relief bills expires on Sept. 30, when the nation presumably goes back to the status quo pre-pandemic and when the maximum benefit in SNAP will fall short of low-income meal costs in 96% of counties. That’s what a new analysis from the Urban Institute finds.

The average cost of a low-income meal, the Urban Institute estimates, is $2.41. The maximum SNAP benefit per meal is $1.97. Nationally, they find, “the maximum SNAP benefit fell short of meeting monthly low-income meal costs by $39.99 per person. Among the 10 percent of counties with the highest average meal costs, the monthly shortfall is $69.75 per person.” That’s before the pandemic boost—the status quo that we’ll return to in five weeks.

“Our findings show the maximum SNAP benefit still leaves a gap in covering the cost of food for many families with low-incomes,” Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said in prepared remarks. “About 4 in 10 households receiving SNAP have zero net income—if SNAP does not cover the cost of a meal, people in such households will be at high risk of experiencing food insecurity. Additional consideration of the geographic variation in food prices when setting SNAP benefit levels is critical to the health and well-being of the most vulnerable communities.” SNAP benefits are the same across the mainland U.S., whether in New York or Huntsville, Alabama—the least expensive place to live in the U.S.

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