Eating well can be hard, and even more so when money is tight. But this week, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a groundbreaking report that will put millions of people in a better position to afford healthy diets.
The report updated what’s known as the Thrifty Food Plan, an estimate of what it costs to purchase the foods needed to eat healthfully at home on a limited budget. This was the first update to the Thrifty Food Plan in 15 years, and its findings are significant: the new research reveals that the cost of a healthy, budget-friendly diet has increased 21 percent since 2006.
Why does it matter? The Thrifty Food Plan is the basis for setting benefit levels for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). And these new adjustments to the plan mean the average SNAP benefit will increase by 25 percent, or $1.19 per person per day—the largest single increase the program has ever seen.
This is a historic update that will help ensure that families across the country have the financial resources they need to keep healthy food on the table. But it’s also an excellent case study of how nutrition research informs policy, and how that policy can produce positive real-world outcomes for millions of people.
The Thrifty Food Plan was overdue for an overhaul
The Thrifty Food Plan is based on what is called a “market basket,” which you can think of sort of like a shopping cart. Market baskets are combinations of foods that would constitute a healthy diet based on the nutritional needs of a hypothetical family of four, including calorie needs and food group recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The total cost of a given market basket can then be estimated based on current average prices of all the foods within it. Using this information, the USDA employs a mathematical model to identify the most nutritious market baskets (i.e., shopping carts) of food that can be purchased at the lowest prices.
Here’s where a critical change was made: the previous model used to create the 2006 Thrifty Food Plan imposed a predetermined cost constraint based on the inflation-adjusted cost of the Thrifty Food Plan before that in 1999. In other words, the cost of each new healthy market basket or shopping cart could never be higher than the one that came before it (after accounting for inflation). The new Thrifty Food Plan removed this cost constraint, allowing the plan to better reflect the preferences and needs of an increasingly diverse population and the current state of the US food system—resulting in the first meaningful increase in purchasing power since the plan’s origins in 1975.
From research to real-world results: Fixing food stamps
The new Thrifty Food Plan will be used to directly inform nutrition policy, increasing SNAP benefit levels by an average $36.24 per person per month beginning October 1, 2021. This will provide critical support to program participants, who identified the cost of food as the leading barrier to healthy eating in a recent USDA survey and in stakeholder listening sessions. Previous research has repeatedly pointed to the inadequacy of current SNAP benefit levels, demonstrating how difficult it can still be for families to afford a healthy diet. For some, getting enough food at all can be a challenge: studies have shown that low benefit levels are linked to a 10 to 25 percent drop in caloric intake near the end of the month, with consequences including poorer academic performance for kids and increased risk of diabetes complications and hospitalization in adults.
What’s more, the new Thrifty Food Plan will help families and communities thrive in other ways. Households seeing increases in SNAP benefits may be able to free up more of their monthly budget for other important expenses, like utility and medical bills or school supplies. And as we’ve written previously, increases in SNAP spending generate an economic ripple effect, supporting local businesses and industries and bolstering the broader economy.
What will nutrition research help us achieve next?
There is nearly limitless potential for nutrition research to help us achieve better health. Whether we realize that potential depends in large part on lawmakers.
Unfortunately, money for high-quality nutrition research isn’t necessarily easy to come by. In fact, public funding for nutrition research has remained chronically low for decades. A groundbreaking paper published last year showed that annual federal funding for nutrition research amounts to a paltry $1.9 billion—less than three percent of all federal research funding—even as federal health care spending accounts for more than one quarter (28 percent) of the entire federal budget. A majority of that spending is dedicated to the treatment of diet-related chronic diseases—diseases that could be prevented with better nutrition.
Though the Biden administration has proposed significant increases in research funding across major science agencies, far more support for nutrition science is needed if the USDA is to advance its goal of achieving nutrition security for all people. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists is partnering with dozens of nutrition and health organizations to accelerate solutions to pressing food and nutrition challenges, including high-quality research that translates to effective public policy for healthy people and a healthy planet. It’s time that rigorous nutrition research like the new Thrifty Food Plan is routine, rather than remarkable.