Column: SNAP update will help fight hunger, especially in northern Michigan

August 27, 2021 4:19 am

Susan J. Demas

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) keeps 270,000 Michiganders, more than 40%of them children, out of poverty every year and helps ensure that families have enough to eat. 

SNAP’s positive impact has been limited, however, by an outdated basis for calculating benefits. President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced steps to modernize the program and increase benefit levels effective Oct. 1, which will support people throughout our state and northern Michigan, in particular.

According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, SNAP users in Leelanau County face the nation’s largest gap between their food assistance benefits — an average of $1.97 per person per meal — and the actual cost of a meal — $6.16. That’s a shortfall of 68%, which struggling families have to cover by making unhealthy diet choices or shifting resources away from other basic needs like utilities and medicine.

While Leelanau County’s gap is extreme, the SNAP shortfall in many other northern communities is above the state average of about 12%. Fourteen of the 20 largest SNAP gaps in the state are in northern Michigan counties. The League’s 2021 Kids Count in Michigan Data Profiles show that child food insecurity rates and SNAP use by families with kids also tend to be higher in northern Michigan. 

That’s why we celebrate successes like 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids and Farms, which helps school districts and child care centers purchase Michigan-grown produce. Thanks to the efforts of Senator Wayne Schmidt and a tenacious network of advocates led by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, the program has recently been expanded statewide. This opportunity is especially important to provide a nutritional boost for kids in communities where hunger is prevalent and SNAP benefits don’t go very far.

To really move the needle on hunger and health, however, strengthening SNAP is critical. SNAP is the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, providing nine meals for every one meal provided by the charitable feeding network.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets SNAP benefit levels based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), a theoretical basket of food items that currently doesn’t meet USDA’s own nutrition standards, address geographical differences in food prices, align with actual human consumption patterns, or accommodate the diverse needs of individuals and families.

The TFP was first developed in 1975 and has been updated periodically (most recently in 2006) only to account for inflation. The items in the basket, however, have stayed the same for nearly 50 years despite changes in our understanding of what a healthy diet looks like. To ensure that the TFP keeps up with evolving science and the economic and logistical realities of American families, the most recent Farm Bill requires USDA to update the TFP every five years.

Urban Institute SNAP report table

This first revision will raise the maximum pre-pandemic SNAP benefit by 21%, which works out to $1.20 per person per day. This modest bump will have a sizable impact on SNAP families, making it easier for them to choose nutritious foods that meet their needs within a tight budget.

The boost in pre-pandemic SNAP benefits, taking effect on October 1, comes just in time — federal COVID-19 recovery legislation raised benefits by 15%, but only through September 30. The long-term increase resulting from modernizing the TFP will help both families and economies affected by the pandemic. 

During an economic downturn, every $1 of SNAP spending generates about $1.50 in economic activity. This supports thousands of jobs in the grocery, agriculture, and other food-related industries as well as other sectors as food assistance frees up money in families’ budgets for a variety of other goods and services.

While very effective, SNAP isn’t a cure-all for the many factors that drive hunger in northern, rural communities. In Ogemaw County, for example, the average SNAP benefit actually slightly exceeds the average meal cost, but the child food insecurity rate of 20.8% is one of the highest in the state.

That’s why we still need other programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), community eligibility for school meals, and state-level initiatives like Ten Cents a Meal. 

It’s why Congress needs to keep working to pass the American Families Plan, including the permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit to help reduce poverty, and also enact the Summer Meals Act and the Stop Child Hunger Act

We need all of these policies and programs working together, and a modern, robust SNAP is an essential pillar in our fight against hunger.

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Julie Cassidy
Julie Cassidy

Julie Cassidy is the Michigan League for Public Policy's senior policy analyst. Before that, she spent 14 years working as a legislative analyst for the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency, where she specialized in health, energy and environmental issues.