According to Reuters, a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) questions whether the U.S. government’s food stamp program adequately provides for healthy diets for the more than 47 million low-income people who rely on the benefit. The report found that the aid for families to pay for groceries, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, does not factor in many barriers to finding affordable, nutritious food by inner-city shoppers. Panelists for the academy, an independent group of scientists who advise the federal government, also said benefits lag behind the increasing cost of food and the program penalizes beneficiaries with jobs.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the aid program, sought the report to help it determine the best way to assess whether food stamps benefits are adequate for recipients to have access to a healthy diet. During and following the 2007–2009 recession, demand for food stamps soared, with middle-class families who found themselves suddenly homeless and jobless pushing enrollment to a record 47.7 million people by September 2012. Even during the recovery, demand has remained high and food pantries and soup kitchens continue to feel the strain.
In its report, the panel said the USDA is slow to react to rising food costs. There is a 16-month lag between when the government assesses the cost of food and when it adjusts benefit amounts to accommodate fluctuations, it said. “Because of the impact of inflation and other factors on food prices, this lag in the benefit adjustment can significantly reduce the purchasing power of SNAP allotments,” the report said.
Panelists said the shortage of affordable supermarkets in many cities means that urban dwellers, who represent a high proportion of those in poverty, must pay more for healthy foods. They also questioned basic assumptions built into the program about how Americans prepare daily meals, especially for single parents. Food stamps are intended for buying inexpensive basic ingredients and unprocessed foods.
The report also questioned formulas used to determine how much benefit each family receives. USDA assumes families will spend 30% of their incomes on food, when in fact most can afford to spend only 13% given rising costs for housing and healthcare, it said. That means that as the families’ incomes rise, the government reduces their benefits too sharply, the report found.