Seth Wenig / AP

Task force proposes food stamp improvements to reduce hunger in US

Congress required bipartisan commission to work with existing SNAP budget, estimated to provide $1.42 per meal

The White House should establish a council to study hunger in the United States, while Congress should reform existing nutrition programs to ensure that food stamp recipients are incentivized to purchase healthier food and can find work without losing their benefits, the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger said in a landmark report.

Among the commission's recommendations, it proposes that recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly called food stamps, be forbidden from using their benefits to purchase certain types of sugary beverages. The report also proposes that unemployed SNAP recipients who find work, or those who are already employed but find a better-paid job, be allowed to maintain their benefits for a grace period even if the new source of income would otherwise reduce their benefits or make them ineligible to receive food stamps.

The 10-member commission was created in a January 2014 act of Congress and tasked with examining how the federal government could reform existing programs to reduce hunger in the U.S. The 96-page report the commission issued Tuesday includes 20 major policy recommendations to Congress and the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Because Congress ordered the commission to stay within existing spending levels, the final report did not include one proposal frequently endorsed by anti-hunger activists: an across-the-board benefit increase to SNAP benefits.

In contrast, an October 2015 report from the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center said that raising SNAP benefit levels was “essential” to reducing food insecurity, because existing monthly allotments “are too low to stave off hunger for the full month, much less allow a family to purchase a healthy diet."

“We had to honor our charge,” said commission co-chair Robert Doar, a fellow at conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), when asked about the absence of a proposed SNAP increase.

The average two-person household on SNAP currently receives $255 per month in food-stamp benefits, according to  an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Spread out over a 30-day month, that amounts to $8.50 per day to feed two people; assuming they eat three meals a day, that leaves them with $1.42 per person per meal.

Even on a budget, the majority of SNAP recipients are unable to make the food stamps last the entire month. Approximately 80 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed within two weeks of receipt, another CBPP report found.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers said in a December report that current SNAP levels are “inadequate,” citing research that found the caloric intake of SNAP recipients declines over the course of a month as their households run low on benefits.

But the Obama administration has played its own part in scaling back benefit levels, despite giving SNAP a major emergency cash infusion in the 2009 Recovery Act. One year after that bill allocated billions of dollars to SNAP in order to counteract the effect of a global market crash, the White House raided SNAP’s coffers to pay for a school lunch program, which in turn triggered a $5 billion across-the-board cut to SNAP benefits in 2013, the beginning of a years-long drawdown intended to eventually return SNAP benefits to pre-recession levels.

Although the National Commission on Hunger was constrained from calling for an immediate SNAP increase, it does recommend a pilot program to explore recalculating monthly SNAP allotments. Currently, the Department of Agriculture calculates SNAP benefit levels based on the Thrifty Food Plan, which models the monthly food budget a low-income household needs in order to hit certain nutrition targets. The commission recommends that the government study the health effects of calculating benefits based on the slightly less stringent Low-Cost Food Plan. 

Under the Thrifty Food Plan, a single man between the ages of 19 and 50 years old would spend $187.20 per month, or $2.08 per meal. The Low-Cost Food Plan allows for the same individual to consume $242 per month, or $2.69 per meal, in food. That would be a modest bump, but potentially a significant one for low-income households.

“We were hemmed in by our charge, which was to make recommendations using existing programs and resources,” said Drexel University public health scholar Mariana Chilton, who co-chaired the National Commission on Hunger, over email. “The cost of the increase overall would be significant, and we wanted to ensure that we had ample scientific evidence that changing the SNAP allotment would reduce hunger."

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a stalwart opponent of cuts to SNAP, said in a statement that the commission's report “underscores how fundamentally important SNAP is to millions of Americans.”

"I wish the report had recommended increasing the SNAP benefit, but given the commission's makeup and the strict parameters it had to work within, I'm not surprised this didn't make it into the final report," said McGovern. "That's just another reason why I believe we need more leadership from the White House on ending hunger, and why I've been advocating for a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Hunger."

Approximately 48 million people nationwide live in households that suffer from food insecurity, defined by the Department of Agriculture as lack of access to “enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,” according to the department’s most recent figures. In an average month over the past year, 46.5 million people lived in households receiving SNAP benefits.

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