How SNAP, Formerly Known As the Food Stamp Program, Really Works

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Could you eat if you only had $4 a day to spend on food? That's what millions of Americans have to try and do. SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is vitally important to nearly 50 million Americans and assists low-income families who work but have large child care, housing, and other expenses that leave them with insufficient money to buy food. (The program used to be called the Food Stamp Program, and many people still refer to it as such.)

A September 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that about 11 percent of households—just over 14 million—had trouble putting enough food on the table last year and that in about four percent of households, someone went hungry because there was not enough money to buy food.

Yet despite these troubling statistics, the Trump administration has proposed a slate of new rules tightening access to SNAP benefits. The latest, which was finalized on Wednesday and goes into effect in April 2020, will more strictly enforce a standard that able-bodied adults without children must work at least 20 hours per week to qualify for SNAP. Before, states could waive this for periods of time, say, if there was a lack of sufficient available jobs. It will now be harder for states to do so and exempt people who live in high unemployment areas. While administration officials say this change encourages the "dignity of work" for low-income Americans, experts estimate that nearly 700,000 Americans in need will lose access to SNAP benefits.

With all of the conversation currently circulating about SNAP, we dig into the program, the misconceptions, and what an average American on SNAP really looks like.

What is SNAP?

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is a federal aid program administered by the USDA that provides food assistance to low- or no-income Americans. Jalil Isa, who serves as the Acting Media Relations Branch Chief for the USDA, explains that SNAP provides added nutritional help to supplement the food budget of eligible low-income families so they can purchase food at SNAP authorized stores, helping them through hard times as they move towards self-sufficiency.

Let’s talk numbers

How much does it take to feed an American? And is SNAP enough? Isa says that the average benefit per month for a household of four in fiscal year 2019 is $131.91 per person.  This works out to average just over $4 per day, per person.

But how nutritiously can one eat on SNAP?

According to Keeley Mezzancello, RD, a dietitian and certified health and wellness coach, it is possible to live on the allotted amount given by SNAP, but there's a catch. “I think it would take immense training and education around how to strategically shop and choose more affordable options, which may mean spending more time in the kitchen as a whole," she says.

review of 25 studies published between 2003 and 2014 that looked at the food spending and quality of diets of participants in SNAP found that while higher-income earners and lower-income earners eat about the same number of calories, SNAP participants ate fewer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

“While a bag of chips may be roughly the same price as a bag of lettuce, the chips require no prep or additions to quickly offer energy for the whole family," Mezzancello says. "I also often hear from patients that they feel produce is susceptible to food spoilage and therefore food waste, whereas the highly processed less nutritious options are oftentimes more shelf stable. As dietitians, we encourage people to think beyond just fresh produce and consider frozen varieties and/or canned options if that works best for their family or budget.”

Isa says that farmer’s markets can apply online to accept SNAP benefits, and that Food and Nutrition Services is committed to expanding access to these outlets to offer fresh, local food for SNAP recipients while supporting economic opportunities for farmers and producers. But that's not a perfect solution either. While Mezzancello agrees that food from the farmer’s market is often fresher and a good way to support local farmers, it can often be more expensive—a non-starter if you're eating on just a few dollars a day. “Plus, individuals receiving SNAP assistance may be working during common market hours or may be at a loss as to what to do with their purchases and that results in food spoilage or waste," she says.

Thankfully, Mezzancello says that farmer's markets are addressing some of these issues by sharing recipes and educational materials with customers "that help shoppers convert their market purchases to a meal on the table.”

Who are the recipients of SNAP?

There are often misconceptions around the recipients of food stamps, but for a non-disabled person with no dependents to qualify for the program, they are required to work for an employer or participate in educational training activities for at least 80 hours a month. (If you have dependents, are enrolled in a drug treatment program, or other stipulations, the work requirement is less.) According to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, four out of five SNAP beneficiaries are either working—many of whom are in the military—or qualify as individuals who cannot be expected to work, such as children, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Mezzancello says, “I vividly recall one of my professors in my Master’s program—in a school of public health—mentioning that many of us would be SNAP eligible as full-time students. I am sure I would've qualified at that point but think there was a stigma against applying.”

The USDA issues recipients an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card where benefits are automatically loaded into the account each month, and used only to buy approved items at authorized food stores and retailers. Recipients cannot purchase alcohol or cigarettes. They also cannot purchase hot food, prepared food, or vitamins.


Recipients cannot purchase alcohol or cigarettes. They also cannot purchase hot food, prepared food, or vitamins.

It’s more than money

Let’s face it: It’s hard to eat healthy meals on a limited budget. Another hefty consideration: the time needed to cook a meal. Mezzancello says that a tub of generic quick oats may cost about $3.50 and has 30 servings. If you pair this with a banana and two hardboiled eggs, the whole meal would set you back about $0.90 and is nutritionally a very balanced option. But if four out of five recipients are working, someone must have the allotted time to prepare this type of meal. If choosing between cooking a pot of lentils for an hour or feeding your crying toddler hot dogs and chips, convenience will almost always win.

Finally, the food deserts

For many, fresh food is often hard to find —especially in food deserts, or areas where finding affordable and nutritious food is difficult because of limited access to grocery stores and other markets. "Some SNAP recipients do their shopping at the corner bodega, the dollar store, or their local convenience store where produce—especially fresh produce—is hard to come by," adds Mezzancello.

In April of 2019, the USDA launched the SNAP online purchasing pilot so that recipients in approved areas can buy groceries from Amazon, ShopRite, and Walmart. “For the first time, SNAP participants can buy their groceries online, as a result of this two-year pilot project, which is intended to ensure that online transactions are being processed safely and securely," says Isa. The program services only the state of New York as of now, but plans to expand over time. This program would help those on SNAP find healthy, affordable food easily that can be sent straight to their doors. Until then, however, many have to weigh costs, ease of access, and nutrition benefits—a game that isn't really a game at all.

Here's how one writer fared when she challenged herself to eat well on $4 a day. Plus, how to get the most out of your trip to the farmers' market.

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