AMHERST, Mass. – A new report, drafted by a national panel that included two University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty members, says the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), should consider several factors in determining whether benefits are adequate. These include time constraints on low-income families and their ability to cook healthy meals, differing food prices across the country and the availability of healthy foods from local food stores.
The report was drafted by a committee of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and was chaired by Julie Caswell (left), resource economics. Sheila Mammen, also from resource economics, was a member of the committee.
“The goals of SNAP are to improve food security and access to healthy diets,” says Caswell, who chairs the UMass Amherst resource economics department. “Defining adequate SNAP benefit levels to meet these goals must focus on both the dollar value of the benefit and the factors that may influence how participating households use their benefits, such as the time they have available, the prices they face, and the stores they can access.”
The SNAP program, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, serves more than 46 million low-income Americans per year, at a cost of more than $75 billion.
The committee recommends that the USDA investigate a number of approaches to incorporate individual, household and environmental factors into the definition of adequate SNAP allotments. Three factors are key to defining the adequacy of SNAP allotments.
The first is the assumption that SNAP participants have sufficient time to produce healthy meals from scratch, which is out of sync with the practices of most U.S. households today. Additional preparation time is required when using basic, unprocessed foods to prepare meals.
Second are food prices faced by SNAP participants that vary across the country, and between urban and rural areas. SNAP participants who live in locales with higher food prices find it difficult to meet their needs with the current benefit.
Third are the limitations experienced by low-income households in getting to supermarkets and other food stores that offer a variety of healthy foods at a lower cost. Low-income minority populations are more likely than others to have limited access to stores selling a variety of healthy foods at a reasonable cost.
The committee also recommends that the USDA examine whether permitting SNAP participants to purchase partially or fully prepared food would offset their need to devote a disproportionate amount of time turning basic ingredients into healthy meals. It also should evaluate the portion of household income that SNAP participants are expected to devote to food purchases to more closely align its calculations with their actual purchases.