WASHINGTON — The US Department of Agriculture on Aug. 16 released a reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which since 1975 has been used to calculate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Based on this reevaluation, the USDA said it would raise average SNAP benefits — excluding additional funds provided as part of pandemic relief — for fiscal year 2022 by about 21% compared with fiscal year 2019, the last full year before the onset of the pandemic. It would be the largest-ever increase in base SNAP benefit levels. The adjustment will take effect Oct. 1.

The cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, 2021, was based on a reference family of four, defined by law as consisting of a man and a woman, both 20 through 50 years of age, and two children, one between 6 and 8 years old and one 9 through 11 years old.

“Using food prices inflated to June 2021, the cost of the Market Baskets for the reference family is $835.57 per month, which is a 21.03% increase from the previous edition adjusted for current prices,” the USDA said. “This means the reference family of four is provided with an additional $4.79 per day to support a healthy diet.”

For an individual, the average SNAP benefit — again excluding temporary additional funds provided as part of pandemic relief — will increase by $36.24 per month, or $1.19 per day.

Congress in the 2018 farm bill directed the USDA to conduct a data-driven review of the current Thrifty Food Plan to be completed by 2022. It also required the Department to conduct subsequent reevaluations of the plan every five years.

The cost adjustment resulting from the first reevaluation marked the first time the purchasing power of the Thrifty Food Plan will be increased. In previous updates to the plan, the requirement was that they be budget neutral, so benefits would rise to offset the impact of inflation, but there was no net increase in SNAP benefits that would allow recipients to purchase the more nutrient dense but more costly foods as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other nutrition guidance.

“A modernized Thrifty Food Plan is more than a commitment to good nutrition — it’s an investment in our nation’s health, economy, and security,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Ensuring low-income families have access to a healthy diet helps prevent disease, supports children in the classroom, reduces health care costs, and more. And the additional money families will spend on groceries helps grow the food economy, creating thousands of new jobs along the way.”

The USDA in its reevaluation said it considered the latest available data from four key areas identified in the 2018 farm bill directive: current food prices, what Americans typically eat, dietary guidance, and the nutrients in food items. The USDA gave the example of the revised plan’s updated Market Baskets including more fish and red and orange vegetables to align with recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Additionally, the 2021 plan was calculated using updated purchasing data — collected from stores versus self-reported by households — to reflect the current price of foods in today’s marketplace. The revised Thrifty Food Plan also included a modest increase in calories to reflect the latest data and support an active lifestyle.

The USDA said the modernized Thrifty Food Plan, 2021, puts more healthy food in reach for SNAP families. It said data consistently showed that benefit levels under the current plan are too low to provide for a realistic, healthy diet, even with households contributing their own funds toward groceries. A USDA study published earlier this summer found that nearly 9 out of 10 SNAP participants reported facing barriers to achieving a healthy diet, with the most common barrier being the cost of healthy foods.

“To set SNAP families up for success, we need a Thrifty Food Plan that supports current dietary guidance on a budget,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services. “Too many of our fellow Americans struggle to afford healthy meals. The revised plan is one step toward getting them the support they need to feed their families.”

The USDA said the reevaluation process was guided by a goal to create Thrifty Food Plan Market Baskets that contain a variety of commonly consumed foods and beverages that are lower in price and of higher nutritional quality (or nutrient density) to support healthy meals and snacks at home on a limited budget. The Market Baskets comprise weekly amounts in pounds from categories of foods and beverages in purchasable forms, and associated costs, to support a healthy diet.  The USDA said because most Americans do not meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the final Market Baskets differ from current consumption patterns but adhere to those patterns as closely as possible within the context of aligning with national dietary guidance.

The USDA said households may choose how to spend their SNAP allotments according to their food needs.

“The Market Baskets simply illustrate how a household could use their resources to purchase foods and beverages that align with dietary guidance and consumer choices, selecting items within each category that are lower in price and higher in nutritional quality,” the USDA said.

“Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity, applauds the USDA’s update to the Thrifty Food Plan, which will result in a long-overdue and largest-ever increase in benefit levels for people participating in the SNAP,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer. “Modernizing SNAP to reflect rising food prices and the actual costs to feed a family in the 21st century will help millions of families afford a healthy, nutritious diet.”

Luis Guardia, president, Food Research & Action Center, said, “Today’s news is a tremendous step in the right direction toward a country free from hunger. We strongly encourage the administration to continue making strides in ending hunger, including by making further improvements to the nutrition safety net.”

Such plaudits were not universal.  The changes announced by the USDA would increase SNAP costs by an estimated $20 billion a year. Ranking members of the House and Senate agriculture committees, Representative Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania and Senator John Boozman of Arkansas, said in a letter to the Government Accountability Office they wanted to know how much involvement the White House had in the USDA review and questioned the legality of changing the position that Thrifty Food Plan evaluations should be conducted on a cost-neutral basis.

 “While we expect this process will elicit an increase to the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — and subsequently monthly SNAP allotments — questions remain as to how the Department has gone about this review and update, including their methodologies, administrative practices and legal authorities,” Mr. Thompson and Mr. Boozman wrote.