Podcast Icon

Judi Bartfeld On Food Insecurity Rates and the Increase in SNAP Benefits

  • Judi Bartfeld
  • October 15 2021
  • PC101-2021

In this episode, Judi Bartfeld shares how the COVID-19 pandemic, and the social safety net’s response to it, has affected food insecurity in the United States. She also explains how the permanent increase in SNAP benefits that took effect October 1, 2021, fits into the larger picture of ensuring that people have consistent access to nourishing foods. Dr. Bartfeld is a professor in the School of Human Ecology at UW–Madison and is also a food security research and policy specialist in the Division of Extension at UW, and is an IRP faculty affiliate.

View Transcript

Judith Siers-Poisson: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Judith Siers-Poisson.

Siers-Poisson: For this episode we are going to be talking Professor Judi Bartfeld of the School of Human Ecology at UW–Madison, she is also a food security research & policy specialist in the division of extension at UW, and is an IRP affiliate. We’ll be talking about new data out about rate of food insecurity, and also the permanent increase in food assistance as of October 1, 2021.

Siers-Poisson: Judy, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bartfeld: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

Siers-Poisson: So what do we mean when we talk about food insecurity?

Bartfeld: Food and security is actually one of the less intuitive terms that we use to talk about economic hardships. It really just means not having assured access to adequate food for healthy and active living, specifically due to not having enough money. So, you know, it’s intentionally this broad concept that spans a pretty wide spectrum of circumstances. Anything from not being able to afford balanced meals to having to cut back on the size of meals or the frequency of meals. Or you know what, the more severe end to having to go a day without eating because you don’t have money for food.

Siers-Poisson: Give us a picture of maybe what a family that’s dealing with food insecurity might look like, what do they try to do to make up that difference?

Bartfeld: You know, it’s such a wide spectrum. What we’re talking about really is households that both are dealing with the kind of stresses around not being able to get the food they need. They’re dealing with, you know, they run out of money for food and have run out of food and don’t have money to buy more. So you have families that are adapting in different ways, whether it’s relying on really limited and less healthy options, whether it’s having to go to food pantries for support, whether it’s having to miss meals. You know, people try to protect their kids from missing meals, so it’s more common for adults to have to miss meals than kids. But again, it’s intentionally this really broad concept which doesn’t always look like going hungry, but it always has this anxiety component and this dimension of kind of adapting how you eat to your circumstances. And I think what’s really important about it is that we know food insecurity, even at these less severe levels, is linked to all sorts of negative outcomes. I mean, in terms of kids functioning and in terms of short- and long-term health consequences.

Siers-Poisson: Do we have a sense of what percentage of families in the United States experienced food insecurity at some point during the year?

Bartfeld: So, over the past couple of decades, the food insecurity rate has fluctuated pretty much in the 10 to 15 percent range. And what we see in general is that it tends to rise during economic downturns. So, for instance, during the Great Recession, we saw that food insecurity jumped from around 11 percent right before the start of the recession to almost 15 percent in the first year, so very tied to the economy.

Siers-Poisson: Those numbers are national numbers, but I bet there’s a lot more complexity within those. Are there certain groups of people who are more at risk of food insecurity?

Bartfeld: Absolutely. Some of the groups that are consistently at highest risk for food insecurity are households with kids as compared to childless household, much higher food insecurity rates among communities of color, higher food insecurity rates for households in which somebody has a disability. And then, of course, it’s strongly linked to poverty and low income as well.

Siers-Poisson: Now, you just talked about that there was a big uptick in food insecurity during the Great Recession. What did we see with food insecurity during COVID 19 at its peak?

Bartfeld: As it turns out, the food insecurity patterns were very, very different than during the Great Recession. Over the course of the year as a whole, we didn’t see any increase in food insecurity. It was 10.5 percent in the year prior. The most recent numbers that came out still ten and a half percent. And again, that’s a really different patterns than we saw during the Great Recession.

Siers-Poisson: So what might explain that?

Bartfeld: Yeah, that’s the million dollar question. And it’s really important. I think the short answer is we had this really robust and multidimensional policy response that made a huge difference. So, there were clearly many, many more households at risk of food insecurity during the pandemic than during the prior year. But, you know, we did a great deal to protect against those risks and vulnerabilities, and much of what was done from a policy standpoint was actually put into place really quite quickly. So, you know, I think we haven’t yet sorted out exactly which mattered how much. But in terms of the scope of the policies that matter, we made Supplemental Assistance Program or SNAP much easier to get on and to temporarily stay on. And you know, in particular, there was a substantial increase in benefit in benefit amounts for SNAP during the pandemic. So, we get basically when people were qualifying, we gave them more money for food. You know, the loss of school meals was clearly devastating to families. But at the same time, we introduced this new pandemic EBT program, which basically gave families money to buy food to make up for the food that they were not getting served at school. We got economic stimulus checks out to households, and we know from asking people how they spent those that lots of people spent part of their stimulus checks on food. Really important was dramatically expanded access to Unemployment Insurance. So, we made those benefits available to households that normally would not qualify, and we made benefits much more generous. So, we were giving people more of their lost income back than we typically do. And then even more broadly, you know, you can think about like moratoriums on the utility cutoffs and moratoriums on evictions. So, people had much more flexibility in how to use their limited resources, which meant you didn’t have to necessarily spend all your money on rent. You could prioritize food, which is something that doesn’t always happen. And, you know, the emergency food system response was also tremendous in terms of really ramping up to get to get food to families that would otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

Siers-Poisson: When we talked about general food insecurity numbers, we talked about some groups being more vulnerable than others. You said that the rate of food insecurity didn’t go up in 2020, but was that across the board? Were there some groups that were probably struggling more and just don’t show up in that very large percentage?

Bartfeld: Absolutely. The kind of stable food insecurity rates was not true for all groups. And in fact, I think one of the most important stories of the pandemic is how those patterns diverged for different groups. So most notably in what we’re seeing is that there were increases in food insecurity among households with kids and particularly among Black and Hispanic households. And really, where we see the biggest increase is at the intersection of those groups of Black and Hispanic households with kids had really quite striking increases in food insecurity, but risk getting lost if we just focus on those, you know, those aggregate numbers. So, you know, again, these groups already came into the pandemic with higher rates of food insecurity. So for Black households with kids, we saw the rate of food insecurity increased from what’s already kind of an astonishingly high rate of 23 percent in the year before the pandemic, up to over 27 percent. For Hispanic households with kids, it increased from 17 percent to almost 22 percent. There were also big increases for households with kids in which there was a noncitizen in the household. So, yeah, so I think it’s definitely not the story that all groups were equally shielded from increases.

Siers-Poisson: So knowing that there is more food insecurity for families with children and especially for Black and Hispanic households with children, what are some of the reasons why that might be the case?

Bartfeld: I think, you know, with these households, the question here is kind of why they saw increases in food hardship during the pandemic in ways that we didn’t see for other households. So in the case of households with kids, I think the school closures were a huge challenge, in part because of the loss of school meals, which really are more important than I think many people realize as just a fundamental part of households’ resources. But you know, for parents, it wasn’t just the school meals. For many, the loss of meals was compounded by these intractable employment-parenting conflicts because of their kids not being in school. So, you know, many parents simply couldn’t work when their kids aren’t at school. So between the loss of meals and the impact on employment, that group was particularly vulnerable. You know, in the case of the high rates of increase for Black and Hispanic households, I think there’s lots of things that potentially are at play here. First of all, you know, again, we said earlier that the disparities for these groups really preceded the pandemic. So they came into the pandemic already with much higher rates of food insecurity. You know, Black and Hispanic kids have traditionally had higher rates of participation in school meals. So they were, I think, particularly vulnerable to the disruptions in those programs. Black and Hispanic households were really disproportionately impacted by job losses during the pandemic. Parents are much more likely to work in sectors that were most impacted in terms of service. Jobs are least likely to be in those kinds of jobs that you could just keep doing at home. This is compounded by some emerging evidence that’s showing that unemployed Black workers were in fact less likely to receive unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Lots of other kind of underlying things. So, you know, coming into the pandemic, communities of color have traditionally faced higher rent burdens and more unstable kinds of housing situations. So in that sense, more vulnerable to some of the hardships. And, you know, housing situations that I think in some cases can create additional challenges to even accessing some of the pandemic-related rental supports that we put in place to longstanding racial wealth gap. That means Black households had far fewer resources to fall back on in times when income goes away. Communities of color have far higher rates of COVID-related hospitalization, which clearly has ripple effects on financial security and on food security. So unpacking all this is clearly going to take some doing. The bottom line is there’s just numerous ways in which communities of color first of all, entered the pandemic at disproportionate risk. They were differentially impacted by the pandemic itself, you know, and in some cases may have had greater barriers to accessing the responses that we put in place.

Siers-Poisson: You talked about some of the ways that the response to the pandemic in policies and programs worked well to stem a rising group of people who are facing food insecurity. So let’s talk specifically what we know works to reduce food insecurity. What types of programs or policies are the most effective? Or is it partly how quickly they’re put into place? Because you said one of the reasons why things worked last year was that it was quick. It was responsive to what was going on.

Bartfeld: I think broadly, there’s really a lot of research that shows a link, first between food assistance programs and food security, but really also between the broader income safety net and food security. So it’s not just programs to increase access to food, it’s programs and policies that increase access to income. But if we just kind of think through some of the things that we know works, we know from lots of research that the SNAP is a tremendously effective programs in reducing food insecurity. We know from what happened during that experience in the Great Recession that when we increased benefit amounts, then that was really effective in helping to limit increases in food insecurity. So we know that’s an important piece of what we did now. We know school meals and summer meals matter. So anything that we can do to increase access to those really next makes a difference. So, you know, again, there’s really good evidence that the pandemic EBT program that we put into effect during the pandemic, from kind of real time monitoring of food hardship rates during the pandemic, we could see that when that program kicked in, it immediately translated into reduced hardship for kids. But in terms of what’s effective, I think it’s really important again to not just focus on the food programs because we know with food insecurity, it’s ultimately really about economic insecurity. It’s about not having money to buy the food that you need. And again, there’s lots of evidence that the income safety net matters. I had mentioned how we expanded Unemployment Insurance during the pandemic and how that’s important. So, you know, there’s a good research base that tells us that that’s important. During the Great Recession, we saw that once there were longer periods of eligibility for unemployment insurance, that helped to bring down food insecurity. And again, during some of this kind of real-time tracking of food hardship during the pandemic, we see that access to Unemployment Insurance benefits during the pandemic was associated with reduced food hardships. You know, another thing is like more generous Earned Income Tax Credits. Before the pandemic, we already knew that that was effective in helping to reduce food insecurity. And you know—this doesn’t show up yet in the food security numbers that we’ve seen—but the new increase in the Child Tax Credit that has just begun rolling out to families. Again, when we monitor what’s going on in near-real time with food hardship numbers, we can see that getting those benefits out to families is associated with declines in food hardships week to week.

Siers-Poisson: So there really is a need for that robust safety net with all those different programs working in concert with each other to support families and households with a bunch of different struggles, whether it’s making rent, paying utilities, having enough food. One of the things about the increases in different programs that we saw to address the COVID-19 pandemic is that many of those measures are temporary. They’re going to be sunset at some point, some sooner than others. But as of October 1st of this year, SNAP benefits—what we’ve said used to be called food stamps—are increasing significantly because of a revision to the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which I don’t think is probably something a lot of people know about. Let’s talk specifically about SNAP for a little bit now. First of all, how do households qualify for SNAP benefits?

Bartfeld: So, SNAP is different from most assistance programs in that it doesn’t just target a particular household type, so it’s quite broadly available and it’s largely just based on income. The federal rules for SNAP are that it’s available to households with income below 130 percent of the poverty line. And then states have some leeway to increase that threshold. So in many states, it’s higher as much as 200 percent of the poverty line. And then what they call a net income, which is your income after you subtract out certain kinds of expenses, has to be below the poverty line. So, you know, the core thing is these income thresholds. Some states have asset or vehicle limits, although most states have waived those limits. So it’s really broadly available, based on your income. And then, of course, the actual benefit amount you get depends on other income that you have, as well as your household size.

Siers-Poisson: About how many households are receiving SNAP benefits in a particular year?

Bartfeld: I think in June, which is the last numbers I saw, I think it was something like forty-two million people were getting SNAP.

Siers-Poisson: So getting back to the revision of the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, what is that exactly and how is it triggering an increase in benefits?

Bartfeld: So the Thrifty Food Plan is basically just a food plan that was designed to stretch your food dollars as much as possible It was developed by the USDA back in 1975, and all it is really is a set of foods that, at least in theory, could provide families with a nutritionally adequate diet at minimal cost. And what it does is start with assumptions about what a nutritional diet looks like, and then it finds the lowest cost foods to meet that diet. So you kind of think of it as just this bare bones food plan that reflects the nutritional guidance and the normative consumption patterns from the time that it was developed, which is like 50 years ago. So that’s what the Thrifty Food Plan is. What’s important in terms of SNAP benefits is that the cost of that Thrifty Food Plan, or the cost of that minimally adequate diet, is what goes into calculating the maximum SNAP benefits. So that’s what SNAP kind of assumes it costs to meet your food needs and then the benefit amount flows out of that. What’s happened is that that cost has been fixed, other than for updates for inflation, ever since 1975. And that’s the case, even though we know that it’s no longer possible to afford a diet that meets current nutritional guidance or current normative consumption patterns on that budget. So going into this increase, where we were is that we have all this research that shows the SNAP benefits are too low to meet household food needs. But at the same time, the benefits have been constrained because of the reliance on the cost of that outdated plan. What happened is that for the first time, the USDA basically updated this Thrifty Food Plan without requiring it to be cost neutral. So what they did is they kind of kept to the spirit of what it was originally, but they reconstructed an economical and nutritionally-adequate diet that’s consistent with current scientific knowledge about what’s considered a healthy diet and that’s consistent with food consumption norms. So those new plans are the Thrifty Food Plan. And then the minimum cost of that revised diet is what will now be used in calculating SNAP benefits.

Siers-Poisson: And what does that mean in real dollars to spend for a household? How much of an increase are we looking at?

Bartfeld: That’s a good question. And it’s actually surprisingly complicated because what’s happening is we’re rolling out this increase at the tail end of all these pandemic-related temporary increases that we’ve put into place. So the answer is very different if we compare the current situation to pre-COVID, kind of what using our standard formulas. And you know, for an average household, the benefit will increase by something like 27 percent over pre-pandemic levels. So that’s a solid increase and it’s one that I think people who study this have been pushing for for a long time because it so clearly was needed. The caveat here is that it’s not going to feel like an increase to people relative to where people are right now. There has been this temporary 15 percent boost in benefits during the pandemic, which will be phasing out right at the time that these new benefit calculations phased in. And then there have been these other temporary increases in benefits that are linked to the state of the public health emergency, and those are still in effect, what will be kind of contingent to the public health situation and those will be phased out. So it’s going to feel a little bit unpredictable, I think, in the near term, but steady state, it’s a sizable increase in benefits.

Siers-Poisson: So it sounds like if I’m understanding correctly, Judy, that it might not feel like this sudden boost, but it’s going to avoid a sudden falloff of benefits that people have been relying on for the last year or more at this point.

Bartfeld: Right. So I mean, it basically shifts from increasing benefits in a temporary and kind of fluctuating fashion to just increasing them steady state. So yes, I think you’re right. I think it won’t feel like a boost in benefits, but it will lead to definitely increased predictability of getting these higher benefits.

Siers-Poisson: One thing that I’ve been curious about is that I’ve heard that the way that SNAP benefits have been calculated in the kinds of foods that are allowed to be purchased. I mean, like you said, they’re based a lot on how people are living 50 years ago. So it’s very minimally processed food or prepared food, which may or may not fit with the way people live today. Have any of those kinds of cultural changes been taken into account as SNAP has been revised?

Bartfeld: Yes. I think the important thing here is, yes, even with the revisions, we’re not talking about affording luxury foods, but we’re talking about kind of costing out a diet that relies on things like canned beans instead of all dried beans. That includes things like ready-to-eat cereal, that includes a larger variety of fruits and vegetables than under the old plan, includes things like frozen, precut vegetables that are standard convenience foods that people use, getting some of your protein from inexpensive seafood like canned tuna and whatnot. So it’s really just kind of updated this to be consistent with the way people eat now. But it’s maintaining the concept of an economical diet for somebody who’s trying to preserve their food dollars.

Siers-Poisson: So, Judy, it seems like this reevaluation and increase permanent increase of SNAP benefits is a positive step in studying food insecurity. Is it enough?

Bartfeld: Yeah. So it’s certainly not the whole answer, but there’s a strong research base behind it. We know it’s going to help, but it’s certainly not the whole answer to solving food insecurity. It’s going to help those families who are receiving SNAP who will now be able to, you know, buy more food than they would have before it. It obviously won’t do anything for the more than 40 percent of food insecure households who don’t receive SNAP.

Siers-Poisson: And we talked about the importance of a robust safety net, not just this one program, but programs working together. Are there other programs that you would like to see either increased or strengthened that would have that ripple effect and would help to reduce food insecurity in the country?

Bartfeld: So my basic answer to a question like that, first of all, I tend to go less to very specific policies and more to the importance of thinking broadly, “what do we know?” So, if you think broadly that addressing food insecurity is both about strengthening food assistance programs and it’s about strengthening economic security, and if you think of it broadly, it really gives you a whole lot of different potential leverage points. You know, so we talked about SNAP increasing the benefit levels. I think it’s also important with SNAP to, in general, think about ways that SNAP can prioritize access over excessive gatekeeping. So I think about things like reducing the frequency of recertification, minimizing asset and vehicle limitations, minimizing work requirements. All of that can really make sure that what we know is an effective program is actually there for the people who need it. You know, in terms of school meals, I think there’s all sorts of things we can do to strengthen those. The importance of access to meals for kids really was highlighted during the pandemic, and I think one thing that’s been happening is there’s increasing interest in ways to expand universal free meals, you know, looking for more ways that schools can offer meals to kids. Like free meals for all kids as just a kind of a routine part of the school day instead of separating who qualifies and who doesn’t. Because that kind of approach really gets food to kids while minimizing red tape and stigma. And again, it prioritizes access over gatekeeping. So I think that’s an important policy direction. I think thinking about how the concept of the pandemic EBT program, where we replaced the value of lost school meals during the pandemic, that kind of model can be used more. We’re steady state in terms of money, money for meals during times that school isn’t in session because we know that was an effective strategy. But again, I think if you start looking outside the food assistance programs, there’s lots of leverage points. So, you know, I mentioned earlier the expanded Child Tax Credit, which is just being rolled out, that’s just temporary for the time being. I think if a program like that were permanent, it has tremendous potential impact not only because it provides additional income, but it provides a steady income supplement every month. And the predictability of income is as important as the amount of income for families. I talked earlier about the ways that we strengthened Unemployment Insurance on a temporary basis during the pandemic. I think there’s lots that we could do that would be really valuable to strengthen Unemployment Insurance in a more permanent way in terms of enabling more people who lose their jobs to qualify for assistance and benefits that are more generous. So I think there’s a lot of potential gain to come there. And then even more broadly, I just think it’s really important to think about competing expenses. So, you know, anything we can do to make housing and health care, which are two of our biggest expenses more affordable so they don’t have to crowd out money for food is really important. It’s so interesting with questions like this because it’s really easy for people to want to get on board with ending food insecurity. I mean, who doesn’t want to end food insecurity? But there’s really sometimes this resistance to recognizing how hunger and food insecurity are just so fundamentally tied to economic security. And that really to solve it, it’s not just about getting people food, it’s about dealing with the broader economic circumstances.

Siers-Poisson: Great points, thank you so much for sharing your analysis with us, we really appreciate it.

Bartfeld: Thanks. It’s been great talking to you.

Siers-Poisson: Thanks so much to Professor and IRP affiliate Judi Bartfeld for sharing her work with us. If you would like to learn more check out other resources about food security and social safety net programs on the IRP website – that’s IRP.wisc.edu.

The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office, any other agency of the federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Poi Dog Pondering. Thanks for listening. 


Child Development & Well-Being, Child Poverty, Children, Economic Support, Family & Partnering, Family & Partnering General, Food & Nutrition, Food Assistance, Food Insecurity, Social Insurance Programs


, , ,