Clearly improving access to benefits for food-insecure Americans was at the top of newly inaugurated President Joe Biden’s to-do list.
On Friday, the USDA announced a set of actions and plans which will expand access to, and the amount of, benefits for food assistance. They include an immediate increase aimed at American kids who lost access to school meals, but also larger plans to reassess how benefits are calculated.
Biden, before taking office, outlined a $1.9 trillion aid package, which will have to make it through both houses of Congress, where Democrats hold either a slim majority or merely a tie-breaking vote. If past packages are any indication, this will take time, so the USDA’s announcement functions as some initial help while those negotiations take place.
The major bullet points of the announcement include a 15-percent increase in the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program or P-EBT. That program provided a dollar amount to children (or, rather, the families with children) who had previously qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. From the USDA’s press release: “To date, the program has capped P-EBT benefit amounts at $5.86 per child per school day and many households have had trouble claiming benefits.” A 15-percent increase would bump that cap to $6.74.
The new Biden administration also announced that it will work with the states and the Department of Justice to adjust some gaps in pandemic-era food assistance. One major flaw had previously provided some boosts to SNAP benefits, but for some reason excluded those who already received the highest level of those benefits—in other words, the country’s neediest people. That category included a whopping 37 percent of all SNAP recipients, some 12 million Americans. The announcement says that states will be allowed to increase the benefits for that group as well.
What’s more interesting, and perhaps more valuable long-term, is that the Biden administration also specifically says that it will target the Thrifty Food Plan. The backstory here: The USDA creates four levels of “food plans,” which are designed to calculate the minimal cost for a meal that adequately addresses nutrition needs. The Thrifty Food Plan is, frankly, ridiculous: For a man between the ages of 19 and 50, it’s set at $44.40 per week, and for a woman of the same age, $39.50 per week. That’s inadequate almost anywhere rasa but completely impossible in many cities with higher food prices. The Thrifty Food Plan also includes some bizarre calculations, like assuming that a woman in that age group would drink three cups of milk per day, even though somewhere around 40 million Americans are lactose-intolerant. (The Counter has a good story on the weird way the Thrifty Food Plan operates.)
The Thrifty Food Plan is also the figure by which SNAP benefits are calculated, which means that they are, generally, way too low to actually support those who need assistance. The 2018 Farm Bill required the USDA to update the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022, but those changes are obviously needed much sooner than that, and the Biden press release says that the USDA will begin those revisions now.
These are initial steps, and much more help is needed from that $1.9 trillion (or whatever it eventually is) aid package. But it’s good to see that nutrition assistance is high on the priority list.