Federal nutrition subsidies don't cover the average meal cost in more than four in 10 U.S. counties, even after Congress increased benefits, a new study found.
Before the temporary 15% increase to the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program benefit, the maximum subsidy did not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 96% of U.S. counties, according to research from the Urban Institute, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. While the temporary boost—set to expire on Sept. 30—has reduced rates of food insecurity, it still doesn't cover the average meal of $2.41 in 40.5% of U.S. counties.
"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."
Policymakers should permanently raise SNAP benefits, at minimum, as well as track the regional variation in food prices, researchers said. Increasing access to healthy food can reduce the rate of chronic disease, experts said.
In the 20 counties with the largest gap between maximum SNAP benefits and the average cost of a low-income meal, average low-income meal costs range from $3.23 to $6.16, or 64% to 213% higher than the SNAP benefit per meal.
More than 40 million Americans, nearly half of whom are children, use SNAP.