The Real Cost of a Healthy Diet: 2011
The Real Cost of the Health Diet Project, a collaboration of Children's HealthWatch at Boston Medical Center and Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University's School of Public Health, investigated whether low-income households can buy food for a healthy diet using the maximum SNAP benefit in their neighborhood food stores.
Objectives of the Project
- To compare actual food costs and availabilty with SNAP benefit levels and the USDA's Thrifty Food Plan (TFP).
In November 2011, the results of the latest study were released in the report, "The Real Cost of a Healthy Diet: 2011." The study examined whether a healthy diet was available and affordable on a SNAP budget at neighborhood food stores in Philadelphia.
Most SNAP recipients do not receive the maximum benefit and use SNAP to supplement their food budget. However, the maximum benefit is designed to cover the entire food budget of those families who have so little income or such high expenses that they cannot contribute to their family food budget.
- Selected four low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia
- Identified four different size stores (1 large supermarket, 1 medium store, and 2 small stores in each neighborhood for a total of 16 stores)
- Used a shopping list based on the 2006 TFP food guidlines
- Collected food availabilty and price data for the TFP shopping list at each store over a two week period
- Calculated the average weekly and monthly cost of the TFP and the number of missing items at each store
The overall average monthly cost of the items on the TFP shopping list in all stores surveyed was $864, which is approximately 29% higher than the maximum SNAP benefit. This represents a $196 monthly shortfall for families who receive the maximum SNAP benefit. This monthly shortfall would have been larger had SNAP benefits not been raised across-the-board in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Small stores remain the most convenient and prevalent type of store in many low-income neighborhoods though they are also the most expensive. Because so many families who receive SNAP rely on small stores as a primary place to purchase food, they are likely to experience the greatest shortfalls when trying to buy a healthy diet.
Searching for fruit and other healthy options
The TFP shopping list used in this study is comprised of 104 items. On average, 35 percent of the items were unavailable in participating stores. Half of the TFP items were missing at small stores, many of which were fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy, nutrient-rich foods. Our research shows that not only are healthy foods out of reach financially for many SNAP recipients, they are often unavailble at small stores in many low-income neighborhoods.
The Thrify Food Plan is not keeping up with changes in our understanding of a healthy diet, challenges in urban neighborhoods, and steadily increasing food prices.
Solutions within Reach: Policy Recommenations
The Real Cost of a Healthy Diet team recommends, as a priority, the following policy action:
- Invest in SNAP over the short and long term to boost the economy and reflect changing food price realties. USDA studies show that every $5 of food stamp benefits generates almost twice as much ($9.20) in local economic activity.
- Protect SNAP's existing entitlement structure, allowing the program to expand with rising need and to shrink as the economy improves and families' earnings increase. This structure has been crucial in protecting low-income households from hunger during natural disasters and economic recessions.
- Maintain ARRA benefit level improvements past their current expiration date of November 2013. This includes restoring the $2 billion cut to SNAP benefits that was included in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2012. By doing so, families will be better able to afford enough healthy food.
- Replace the USDA's Thrifty Food Plan with the Low-Cost Food Plan as the basis for the maximum SNAP benefit. The Low-Cost Food Plan is a more accurate reflection of food pricing in struggling urban and rural communities.
History of the Project
In 2005, the project conducted a pilot, which resulted in the report, The Real Co$t of a Healthy Diet: Healthful Foods Are Out of Reach for Low-Income Families in Boston, Massachusetts. Building upon this pilot work, Children's HealthWatch and the Drexel School of Public Health published findings about the availability and affordabilty of healthy food in Boston and Philadelphia in the September 2008 report, Coming Up Short: High food costs outstrip food stamp benefits.
More information about SNAP:
More Resources on National, State and Local Policy Recommendations, Food Security and Nutrition Assistance Programs:
Calculating U.S. Poverty Thresholds
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)
Streamlining Application Procedures
Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8)
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