USDA focuses on cost of healthy meals amid food stamp benefits revamp

The US Department of Agriculture is highlighting the difficulty food stamp recipients have in affording healthy meals as it seeks to revise the program’s funding formula.

Nearly 9 in 10 participants face barriers to providing themselves and their families with nutritious food, the agency said Wednesday. The most common hurdle, reported by 61% of enrollees, is cost. Smaller shares said they lack time to prepare food from scratch (30%), need transportation to the grocery store (19%) or don’t have storage for fresh or cooked food (14%).

As directed by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill, the agency is reevaluating the Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to set benefit amounts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps. The value of the plan has been adjusted only for inflation since it was introduced in 1975, while there have been major changes to nutrition science, the food supply, consumption patterns and participants’ circumstances since then, the agency said.

RELATED: Federal spending on food aid up 50% but hungry Americans say it’s not enough

Consumer advocates have long pushed for a review of the plan, which is supposed to reflect the cost of a basic healthy diet, saying it makes unrealistic assumptions about food affordability and availability today, as well as about the time families have to shop and prepare meals.

The USDA is aiming to complete its review of the Thrifty Food Plan by the end of the summer. The farm bill requires the agency to publish an updated plan by 2022 and every five years thereafter, but President Joe Biden asked the agency to look into it in an executive order in January.

Nearly 42 million Americans rely on food stamps — a figure that has grown amid the coronavirus pandemic, which sparked an increase in hunger nationwide. In response, Congress has boosted the value of the benefit by 15% through September and created or bolstered other federal nutrition assistance programs.

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