Congress’ Chance to Influence Anti-Hunger Policy
The Farm Bill is comprehensive federal legislation that includes funding for a myriad of food and agriculture related programs and policies. Broken down into 12 titles, a new Farm Bill is passed every five years. The provisions within the Farm Bill’s Nutrition title control spending for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The last Farm Bill was passed in 2018 and will expire on September 30, 2023, meaning federal lawmakers are working on changes and improvements for the next iteration of the bill.
SNAP is an essential tool in the fight against hunger, food insecurity, and poverty. The program allows recipients to boost their grocery budget with monthly funds, which not only makes food more accessible and affordable, but in turn increases the household’s purchasing power and stimulates the local economy as well.
As Massachusetts’ statewide anti-hunger organization, Project Bread prioritizes increasing access and awareness surrounding SNAP. In addition to our other programs, such as Health Care Partnerships, the Child Nutrition Outreach Program, and Community Nutrition Services, Project Bread operates the FoodSource Hotline, which received 20,611 calls in 2022, with nearly 38% of callers requesting to be connected to SNAP. Both the Farm Bill and any changes that it brings for SNAP are central to the work that Project Bread does and plans to do over the next five years. These recommendations, which focus on SNAP given our direct expertise with the program, are designed to protect and strengthen a program that is integral to our work to permanently solve hunger in Massachusetts.
SNAP participants are facing a hunger cliff following the sunsetting of the COVID-19 emergency allotments, which expired for Massachusetts residents following the February 2023 issuance. On average, households in Massachusetts will lose $151.46 in monthly benefits from this change [source]. Project Bread analyzed national data from states that prematurely ended the emergency allotments, and our analysis demonstrates the impact that this hunger cliff will have on families. SNAP households from states that discontinued providing emergency allotments reported higher rates of skipping meals, reduced consumption of food, increased support from others (such as family and friends), and increased use of food pantries, compared to states that did not discontinue the allotments. [source]
It is essential that targeted action is taken to protect and strengthen SNAP benefit adequacy and choice within the 2023 Farm Bill Nutrition title.
SNAP received a historic update in October 2021 due to a reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to calculate SNAP allotments.
The purchasing power of the Thrifty Food Plan had not changed since the plan’s introduction in 1975, meaning the update better aligned SNAP with the current realities of accessing healthy food on a budget. [source]
The Thrifty Food Plan update kept nearly 2.3 million people out of poverty in the fourth quarter of 2021, decreased child poverty by nearly 9%, and lessened existing racial disparities. [source]
Despite the Thrifty Food Plan update, benefit amounts remain inadequate for low-income individuals. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the average SNAP monthly benefit per participant is expected to fall from $238.05 in FY22 to $197.78 in FY23, and despite projected inflation, not get back to the FY22 level until FY31. [source]
The Thrifty Food Plan assumes that families have 9 to 17 hours per week to prepare meals, when in reality, the average person has about 40 minutes a day to prepare meals. [source] Moving to the Low-Cost Food Plan would better reflect the reality that working families face today of preparing healthy meals in a short amount of time.
Food costs, specifically for meat and produce, vary greatly from state to state, with some more far-reaching states like Hawaii and Alaska and areas near tribal lands seeing significantly inflated prices for imported goods. [source] Currently, the Thrifty Food Plan does not account for these geographical price differences, leaving families in a city as expensive as Boston with the same amount as families living in other areas. This also disproportionately impacts Indigenous communities that rely on imported foods, with a gallon of milk costing an Alaskan Native person $25. [source]
The high cost of living in Massachusetts - where the average fair market rent is almost 50% higher than the U.S. average - means limited purchasing power for low-income families. [source] In Massachusetts, the average price of a moderately priced meal in 2020 was $2.85, which is $0.44 more or 18.3% higher than the national average. [source] With inflation and the rising cost of food and other basic needs over the past 3 years, we can only assume this number has increased.
Even when you factor in the Thrifty Food Plan update, a modestly priced meal in 2020 still on average costs 20% more than the maximum SNAP benefit in Massachusetts. [source]
“I have SNAP, but I usually run out toward the end of the month - like now I have none left. I try to buy fresh food for my health, but everything has been so expensive lately.”
Senior in Revere. He connected with our Hotline via a referral from his health center
“What am I going to do with just $23 for two people after that extra allotment ends? I don't want to go through the whole process just to get that little amount of assistance.”
Senior living with her spouse in Fitchburg. They make under the gross income limit but over the net, so as a result, they are eligible for the minimum benefit of $23.
The SNAP shelter deduction was created to allow households to deduct housing related costs from their SNAP benefit calculations, as long as those costs exceed 50% of their income. This could include rent, utilities, and rental-related repair costs, which is significant relief for many families who are struggling to maintain their housing.
However, for families that do not have a household member over 60 or one with a disability, there is currently a cap of $624 on the amount of housing costs that a family is able to deduct.
Eliminating this artificial cap on the excess shelter expense deduction particularly benefits those who live in areas with high living costs, such as Massachusetts. By removing this cap, families will be able to increase their purchasing power through increased SNAP benefits, which would make a significant impact on families burdened with housing costs.
“We haven’t had any changes to our income but with the cost of our rent, utilities, and other expenses has gone up.”
Two-parent family in Grafton. They have two older children, one in college and the other in her senior year of high school, and a child in 1st grade. They haven’t felt any financial relief, as they fall just above the SNAP net income limit, making their household eligible for $0. Although their expenses nearly doubled, it didn’t change anything. Her family has had to rely on food pantries.
Currently, SNAP allows for elderly and non-elderly disabled individuals to deduct income due to medical expenses. This allows for a more generous and accurate benefit calculation for SNAP benefits. While this is available, many people are simply unaware of the deduction, with only 16% of households with elderly people and 9% of households with someone with a disability claiming the deduction in 2017. [source]
Simplifying the standard medical expense deduction process for elderly and individuals with a disability will allow them to maximize their monthly benefit amounts.
We recommend that a minimum standard deduction of $140 is ensured to all people claiming the deduction.
This proposal is currently underway in Massachusetts through a waiver.
She is currently going through cancer treatment, so she is paying a large amount for both health insurance and copays for her visits and medications. With these expenses and her mortgage, she is struggling to keep up.
“I am trying to keep paying the big bills off because I want to keep my home. It’s so important to have a home. But that means that I have to buy my groceries on my credit card because there is not enough money in my regular account to pay for them.”
Senior in Springfield. Although she has income through Social Security, she is struggling to cope with a large dental bill that was not covered by her insurance as well as her housing costs, so our Hotline helped her apply for SNAP over the phone.
These limitations present an undue burden on low-income families. For example, a family on SNAP can purchase raw or frozen chicken but is barred from purchasing rotisserie chicken. For a busy family or one without the ability to cook, this change would greatly expand access to healthy, accessible meals.
Access to kitchen equipment is a barrier for many low-income households, hindering their ability to prepare meals. As part of our Health Care Partnerships program, where we provide nutrition support and address the individualized needs of patients who are food insecure paired with a physical or behavioral health diagnosis, 82% of program participants requested kitchen supplies and appliances such as refrigerators.
It is essential that by providing families with SNAP benefits, we trust them to make the best decisions for their own households and allow them to do so in a dignified manner by allowing families to purchase more easily accessible food options.
Rescind the three-month SNAP time limit on able-bodied adults ages 18-49 who have no dependent children to ensure that all those who are eligible have access to the nutrition assistance that they need.
Studies have found that work requirements do not have a significant impact on employment or earnings, and these requirements disproportionately impact unhoused individuals. [source]
The three-month limit has also been proven to exacerbate racial inequalities by preventing those who could benefit the most from accessing them. [source]
“This has never happened to me before. I usually have income coming in, but right now I don't have anything. I usually use the SNAP up slowly. I'm not irresponsible - it just ran out for the first time ever last week. I haven't eaten in a couple days. I'm going to a job fair tomorrow to try to get a job, but I need something by then.”
Able-bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD) in Boston. They called the Hotline looking for immediate food delivery or a gift card because their SNAP ran out this month.
Expand SNAP access to college students who are attending school at least half-time on work study or those who work 20 hours or more per week at an outside employer. This would put low-income college students on equal standing with young people who are not attending college. These students will be subject to the same SNAP eligibility requirements as their non-college attending peers.
37% of public university students in Massachusetts are food insecure, and Black (52%), Latino/a (47%), and LGBTQ+ students (46%) disproportionately experience hunger. Only 20% of food insecure students in the Commonwealth utilize SNAP benefits, so expanding program access, reducing burdensome rules, and increasing awareness are all critical to closing this gap. [source]
The idea of a traditional college student has vastly changed since the inception of SNAP. Attendance for nonwhite college students has increased 185.5%, with enrollment rates rising 455.9% for Hispanic and Latino/a students since 1976. Female college enrollment has risen 98.1% since 1947. [source] Although undergraduate enrollment has diversified, there has also been a rise in the price of tuition. Public 4-year universities tuition prices have increased 2.58 times, signifying the importance of increased college-based programming to support the basic needs of students. [source] College students without parental financial assistance, those who are over 25, LGBTQ+ students, and students of color were found to be more likely to be food insecure than their white heterosexual peers, making this an issue of equity that must be resolved. [source]
Sam had fallen on hard times and could not keep up with attending school, working a part-time job, and taking care of his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy.Sam had to readjust to a new working schedule with even fewer hours since his mother’s income would not allow her to afford a full-time personal care attendant. Our Hotline was able to assist Sam with an online SNAP application.
The five-year waiting period should be eliminated for lawfully present immigrants who are otherwise eligible to enroll in SNAP.
This would give families equitable access to the critical nutrition resources that they are forced to wait years to access, which can lead to exacerbated food insecurity. [source]
Immigrant families with children disproportionately experience basic needs insecurity, with 28% experiencing food insecurity, 23% delaying medical care due to cost, 18% struggling to afford their utility bills, and 18% struggling to pay their housing costs. [source]
Individuals reentering society face greater barriers to accessing food. According to the National Institutes of Health, 91% of people released from prison reported experiencing food insecurity, and a Rhode Island study found that 70% of individuals on probation experienced food insecurity. [source, source]
Barring individuals from accessing basic need resources hinders successful reentry and disproportionately impacts Black and Latino/a individuals as a result of structural racism within our criminal justice system. [source]
Residents of U.S. territories currently do not have access to the SNAP program, but rather the federal block grant Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP). This block grant has a fixed amount of funding and therefore cut the amount of people eligible for assistance and the amount of assistance that was being received prior to its implementation in 1982. NAP’s capped funding structure means it cannot serve all residents who may be SNAP eligible, provide the same level of benefits that SNAP can, or respond to disasters and recession the way that SNAP can. [source]
Not only is there a lack of nutritional resources available to residents of U.S. territories, they are also more likely than non-territory U.S. residents to be living below the poverty line. It is estimated that the amount of residents living below the poverty line is around 50% in Puerto Rico, 70% in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and 80% in American Samoa. [source] For the 50 United States and the District of Columbia, the 2021 official poverty rate was 11%. [source]
If you would like to learn more or discuss our Farm Bill recommendations, contact Molly Kepner, Assistant Director of Federal Policy at Molly_Kepner@projectbread.org