The White House and USDA are strong advocates of healthy eating, providing U.S. citizens guidance on how to achieve balanced nutrition on a reasonable budget. But is the federal government’s food assistance program able to help those most in need meet its own recommendations? In light of the recent changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the team at InfoScout wanted to find out.
In 2013, SNAP – also known as food stamps – provided an average monthly benefit of $133 per person and $275 per household in 2013, reaching 48 million people across 23 million households. SNAP benefits were decreased by about $10 per month per person in November 2013, reducing the maximum benefit to $189 per individual. Given this reduction in benefits, we decided to explore the extent to which beneficiaries of the program could eat healthily on the reduced budget of $189. Let’s find out.
The USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov website provides a plethora of information for a healthy lifestyle, from weight management and physical activity tools and guidelines to tips for eating healthy when eating out. The site showcases various cookbooks including a 7-day meal plan that meets a recommended 2000-calorie diet with the right balance of food groups and nutrient intake, all at a “moderate cost”.
So we try to answer the question: can an individual relying solely on government benefits afford to follow the government’s recommendations regarding a balanced diet?
Over the past two years, InfoScout has established America’s largest and richest source of household purchases across all retailers at the item level. With this data we are able to dig into real-world food spending patterns to find out.
We began by looking at each recipe and its ingredients within the USDA’s 7-day meal plan. We took each ingredient from the USDA recommended menu and paired it with the top-selling product corresponding to that ingredient from our InfoScout database, where we’re able to see per-basket SNAP purchases. Factoring in the packaging sizes and prices per serving of each ingredient, we calculated the price of each meal.
We found that a single adult following the USDA recommended 2000-calorie diet would spend nearly $8 per day, or $240 per month at current food prices. That’s $51 more per month than the maximum benefit allowable under the SNAP program. Put in practical terms, this means that even with a perfectly-planned and executed grocery budget, a SNAP recipient would only be able to feed themselves until the 24th day of the month, and run out of financial support before dinner.
This gap becomes even more prominent as the household size grows. For each additional household member, the incremental allotment decreases. So while an individual can get $189 each month, a household of two gets $347, or $173.50 each. As these per-person benefits decrease, the cost of feeding each person remains the same. So as you can see, that gap grows tremendously as the need increases.
With healthy diets clearly so far out of reach for the 47 million Americans relying on the government for support, it is no surprise that those in the lower income brackets turn to higher-calorie, though often nutritionally-poor, meals. We found that, compared to high-income consumers, lower-income Americans have a 30% shift in their food expenditures towards snack foods (like potato chips, cookies, and candy) and away from nutritional foods (like yogurt, fruits, and vegetables). While the USDA-suggested diet clocks in at about 247 calories per dollar, our study of the most purchased snack foods yielded an average of 672 calories per dollar, with popular brands of chips leading the pack at an incredibly efficient 752 calories per dollar.
Calorie counting doesn’t stop at the grocery store, especially with more and more fast-food chains accepting food stamps. A quick study of Burger King, KFC, and Subway, where a standard meal-deal includes an burger or sandwich, side of fries or chips, and a soda yielded an average price of around 250 calories per dollar – effectively the same cost per calorie as the buying groceries to follow the USDA suggested meal plan. And since fast food doesn’t require any meal-planning, grocery-shopping, or cooking, it’s unsurprising that low-income consumers often prefer a meal on-demand. The problem, of course, is that a fast food diet can easily result in 230% excess fat and 370% more sodium than recommended, all while offering fewer key nutrients.
Moreover, low-income consumers can stretch their food budgets further with choices like McDonald’s McDouble sandwich which packs 390 calories for just $1 – that’s 58% more calories per dollar than buying healthy foods at a grocery store. If a person could live off McDouble’s alone (not that anyone is suggesting that’s a good idea), they’d save $90 per month compared to a healthy diet of home-cooked meals and be able to feed themselves via food stamps throughout the entire month.
Whether it’s the relatively cheap meals on-demand offered by quick service restaurants or the low-cost calories of snack foods like potato chips, we should not be surprised to know that lower income Americans (especially women) are more likely to be overweight or obese while also experiencing poorer health and shorter lifespans. With the rapid rise from 11% of American households receiving support from the SNAP in 2008 to 20% of households in 2013, at a cost of nearly $80 billion, it’s no wonder that the programs merits and funding have been hotly debated in Congress. At InfoScout, our intent is not to fuel the debate as to whether SNAP funding should be increased or decreased to support more or fewer participants. Instead, we believe the data begs for further debate over fundamental policy questions such as:
~ Should SNAP offer greater incentives towards purchases of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables to help improve the healthy outcomes that everyone desires from such a program?
~ Should the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program even allow the purchases of junk foods and fast foods that fail to meet basic nutritional standards? (Especially considering the fact that these foods offer lower costs per calorie to those Americans who can’t afford to follow a healthy meal plan.)
~ How should we prioritize healthy eating amid a growing base of people relying on federal support, and the associated growing costs?
In the meantime, we welcome your thoughts and feedback as we continue to study real-world purchasing behavior.