MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Most Americans receiving food assistance benefits can’t afford the cost of an average low-income meal, a new national study reported on the heels of the federal government’s proposal to limit the program.
The study from the Urban Institute reported that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) fell short of affording an average meal in 99 percent of US continental counties and the District of Columbia. The Urban Institute is a liberal-leaning think tank and research organization based in Washington D.C.
More than 44 million Americans received SNAP benefits every month in 2016, according to the most recently available government data.
The study, published Thursday, follows the federal government’s proposal to reduce SNAP funding by about $213 billion, or 30 percent, over 10 years. President Donald Trump also proposed replacing food stamps with a home delivery box similar to a “Blue Apron-style” meal kit.
The study calculated the maximum SNAP benefit per meal and compared it to the average low-income meal cost per person based on census data. The maximum SNAP benefit was $1.86. The average meal cost was 27 percent higher.
The 20 counties with the largest gap included high-cost urban areas like New York and San Francisco and smaller rural counties in Oregon and Michigan. California had the most counties in the top 10 percent.
SNAP is intended to supplement a family’s food budget. But the study reported that for 37 percent of SNAP households with no income, benefits are the only way to buy food.
The study also said the current SNAP benefit per meal meets the meal costs of less than 1 percent of all counties in the country: 18 of those counties are in Texas; three are in Indiana; and one is in Ohio, the report said.
Barry Spear, public information manager for Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, which administers SNAP, told The Associated Press that SNAP is meant to supplement but not meet all food needs, like the name suggests.
“It’s not the only source that they have to find food,” Spear said. “A lot of people think it’s supposed to take care of all their needs, and it’s not designed to do that.” He said individuals can join other federal programs like WIC, which gives aid to women and children, or go to food banks run by nonprofit organizations or churches.
The study acknowledged that SNAP isn’t designed to meet all food needs but added that people in low- or no-income households will be “at high risk of experiencing hunger and food insecurity.”
“This analysis further confirms that food price affects a wide variety of communities - small and large, urban and rural, and in all geographic regions of the continental US,” the study said.
More than 850,000 Alabamians received SNAP benefits every month in 2016. The study reported those benefits don’t cover an affordable meal in all 67 Alabama counties. In Baldwin County, the worst affected, the average meal cost 43 percent more.
Elaine Lee, a planner and special projects director at the Community Action Agency of South Alabama in Baldwin County, said most clients she serves depend on multiple federal programs because SNAP runs short each month.
“SNAP benefits are really a problem for the elderly who have other limited fix-income issues,” Lee said. “It seems that the award amount and the benefit amount is not enough to get over the hump of the month.”
Lee refers clients to Prodisee Pantry, the largest food bank in Baldwin County. Executive Director Deann Servos said the food bank serves between 1,000 to 1,200 families a month with a week’s worth of groceries. Almost all the clients are on SNAP.
Servos said the federal government’s cuts would have a devastating impact on families stuck in the cycle of poverty.
“Without that benefit, it’s detrimental to those families,” Servos said. “For families with unexpected emergencies and job losses, that program is there and they only use it for a short period of time and then move forward. Without that, we will find more folks falling deeper and deeper into poverty.”