(Source: Urban Institute)

Before a pandemic-related 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, in 96% of U.S. counties the maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the cost of a modestly priced meal.

The program, which is used at higher rates in rural areas, fell short of monthly food costs by an average of $39.99 per person, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute. Among the 10% of counties with the largest gap between food costs and maximum benefits, that number was $69.75 per person.

With the temporary 15% increase in benefits, food costs exceed maximum benefits in 40.5% of counties. In rural Leelanau County, Michigan, where the gap is the highest in the nation, the average modestly priced meal costs $3.90 more than SNAP provides, even after the temporary increase. 

While food costs are lower on average in nonmetropolitan counties, many rural tourism destinations see higher prices, said Elaine Waxman, Urban Institute senior fellow. 

Rural recreation counties such as Nevada County, California, Pacific County, Washington, Blaine County, Idaho, and Teton County, Wyoming, are all among the top 10 highest-gap counties. Only two of the 10 highest-gap counties are metropolitan. 

“I think that’s an interesting conundrum for rural areas because in some ways tourism is obviously important to the economy, but it also means that people who live there year round probably face a higher set of prices,” said Waxman.

According to the Urban Institute, it is often argued that SNAP benefits are not meant to cover a family’s entire food budget. However, approximately 40% of eligible families have zero net income, “either because they have no household income or because their qualifying income is reduced to zero after accounting for eligible expense deductions,” stated the report.

“Although SNAP helps reduce food insecurity, a significant body of evidence suggests that the

current design of the program is inadequate and therefore falls short of the promise it holds for

improving outcomes among those struggling to put food on the table,” stated the report. 

As of May 2021, the Biden administration was reportedly looking into making permanent the 15% increase in maximum benefits, according to The Hill. The Administration is planning to announce changes to the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, which is the basis for SNAP allotments, in mid-August, said Waxman.

“The question is, are they going to be trying to make a 15% increase permanent, or are they doing something else?” she said.