Food insecurity is one of the biggest hurdles that our most vulnerable neighbors face daily — something that gets especially challenging around the holidays. With schools closed for winter break, many families are left without a regular source of meals for their children through the United States Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program. And for seniors, the cold weather makes it difficult to travel to food pantries, especially if they don’t have easy access to transportation. According to the USDA, nearly 11% of Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020.

For households with low food security, the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, can be a critical lifeline. The Food Stamp Program was established in 1939 and has been slowly expanded by presidential administrations through the years. In 1990, electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards began to replace paper food stamps, and in 2008, the program’s name changed to SNAP. Today, SNAP helps feed more than 42 million Americans — including about 831,000 Tennesseans — reducing poverty and leading to improved health and economic outcomes.

A historic increase

In October, SNAP recipients around the country received good news in the form of the single largest increase in SNAP benefits ever. This change was implemented by the USDA to reflect the cost of a healthy diet for Americans more accurately. As part of the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress directed that the USDA regularly re-evaluate the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which is used to calculate SNAP benefits. The TFP represents the cost of a nutritious, practical and cost-effective diet for a family of four.

Many advocates argue that the increase in SNAP benefits was long overdue — a USDA study found that nearly nine out of 10 SNAP recipients faced barriers to achieving a realistic and healthy diet, the most common being the price of food. The TFP was established in 1975 and had only been updated three times — most recently in 2006 — only to accommodate changing nutritional guidance, food preferences and inflation. The TFP will now be re-evaluated every five years.

Current food prices, common foods, and dietary and nutritional guidance were four key factors used to determine the historic 21% increase, which will add an average of $36 per person per month to recipients’ benefits — meaning that a family of four could see nearly $150 more in monthly benefits. This increase has the potential to make a positive impact in the lives of individuals and families that receive SNAP benefits, giving them better accessibility to healthy food as prices continue to rise. Although this is a historic increase, those who have been receiving SNAP benefits over the past year and a half may not notice the change because of the emergency benefits that have been in place throughout the pandemic.

Pandemic emergency benefits

In April 2020, the USDA began issuing emergency SNAP allotments at the maximum benefit level. In January 2021, the federal government implemented a 15% increase to SNAP benefits. For some recipients, the USDA emergency allotments and the 15% bump were a substantial amount of extra money.

Although the 15% increase expired at the end of September 2021, the USDA emergency allotments will continue to be issued as long as public health emergency declarations remain in effect. There’s been no timeline set for when those might expire.

While the emergency benefits are temporary, the 21% increase that took effect in October will be permanent, and most households will see an increase in their benefits. This increase is an important first step for further improvements to SNAP and the way recipients purchase and prepare food.

At Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, many SNAP recipients are still telling us they are receiving a lower amount of benefits than they actually are because they are not aware of the temporary emergency benefits on their card, or because they are unaware of the recent increase. If you are on SNAP, you can call the phone number on the back of your card to verify your current balance.

If you have general questions about SNAP benefits or need help with a denied SNAP application, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands may be able to help. Additionally, if you are eligible for SNAP benefits, we may be able to assist you with other related civil legal issues. Call 1-800-238-1443 or visit www.las.org to learn more.

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