October 2021 Issue
Helping SNAP Shoppers Make Healthful Choices
By Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN
Vol. 23, No. 8, P. 46
Knowing what obstacles shoppers face and the resources available will help them meet their diet and nutrition goals.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp program, is the largest federal food assistance program that makes it easier for low-income individuals and families to put food on the table. More than 40 million Americans (~13% of the US population) participate in SNAP and spend $55 billion in purchases at food retailers of various types and sizes, including supermarkets, warehouse stores, convenience stores, and farmers’ markets. Research shows that SNAP plays a critical role in reducing food insecurity and improving health long term.1-3 However, a June 2021 USDA study reports that nine out of 10 SNAP participants face barriers to healthful eating.2 This article provides an overview of the SNAP program so retail dietitians can help participants shop smarter and overcome barriers that impact healthful eating.
Low-income adults with children living in the same household or those who are deemed physically or mentally unfit to work can qualify for SNAP benefits if they meet federal criteria. However, in general, individuals must be working to qualify for SNAP benefits. Adults without children who are unemployed but seeking work or have a low-paying job can qualify for SNAP, but they’re limited to three months of benefits out of every three years. In addition, adults aged 60 and older who meet income eligibility guidelines and who are unable to purchase and prepare meals because of a permanent disability also may qualify.
Although each state administers the SNAP program where people can apply to participate, the federal government establishes income eligibility qualifications. As of 2021, a household must meet these three income criteria to qualify4:
1. Gross Income. A family must have a gross monthly income less than 130% of the federal poverty line, or $2,353 per month (about $28,200 per year). The poverty line is higher for larger families and lower for smaller families.
2. Net Income. Household net income must be equal to or below the federal poverty line after deductions are applied for items such as housing costs and child care.
3. Assets. Households must not have assets that exceed $2,250 to qualify; however, asset limits can be a bit higher ($3,500) if the household has a member who’s disabled or elderly. Generally, assets are resources that can be available to a family to purchase food, such as money in a bank account.
Nationally, 42% of SNAP participants are in working families; 66% are in families with children; and 36% are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities.3 Undocumented immigrants and workers on strike don’t qualify for SNAP benefits. In addition, most full-time students attending an institution of higher education aren’t eligible unless they meet an exemption.
Benefit Level Determination
The monthly benefit level eligible participants receive is based on need and varies by income and household size. As the largest federal antihunger program, SNAP is intended to supplement a participant’s income to purchase food. The assumption is that 30% of one’s net income is spent on food. A family with no net income receives the maximum benefit level to meet the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, the USDA’s estimate of a low-cost nutritionally adequate diet aimed at reducing hunger. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, SNAP provided $1.40 on average per person per meal. In recent years, the Thrifty Food Plan has received criticism that SNAP benefits fall short of what households need to afford a healthful diet. According to the latest data from USDA published in July 2021, the average SNAP benefit per person was $202 per month, which calculates to $2.24 per person per meal, a slightly higher level of benefits authorized due to the pandemic.5
What Foods Can SNAP Participants Buy?
Fortunately, there are no restrictions that dictate the nutritional quality of foods SNAP participants can purchase and few limits on the types of foods and beverages they can purchase. Food eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits include most staple foods, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy products, bread, cereals, snack foods, nonalcoholic beverages, spices, cooking oils, condiments, sweeteners, and most other ingredients that can be used to prepare meals. In addition, seeds and plants that produce food also are allowable items SNAP participants can purchase.
Some foods that can’t be purchased using SNAP benefits include alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, pet food, hygiene items, cleaning supplies, and additional nonfood choices. Other ineligible products include those with Supplement Facts Labels (vs Nutrition Facts Labels), which include most vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements. Participants can purchase shellfish and seafood removed from water with SNAP benefits but not live animals or animals slaughtered before pick-up from stores. Moreover, consumers can’t purchase hot foods and ready-to-eat foods sold in-store, such as rotisserie chicken and pizza, with SNAP benefits. However, a Restaurant Meals Program exists to help elderly, disabled, and/or homeless SNAP recipients who face barriers to cooking and purchasing food at SNAP-authorized restaurants where they can use their SNAP EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards. Generally, restaurants are ineligible for authorization to accept SNAP benefits as a form of payment.
How Shoppers Make SNAP Purchases
SNAP participants purchase food through EBT. This system enables recipients to authorize transfer of their government benefits from a federal account to a retailer on a monthly cycle. SNAP benefits are automatically deposited in a participant’s EBT account, typically at the beginning of each month. Participants receive a plastic card with a magnetic strip they can use as they would a debit card to access their SNAP EBT account at authorized food retail outlets. Along with the EBT card, participants receive a personal identification number (PIN) that protects their benefits from unauthorized use. And they must enter their PIN at the point-of-sale terminal in the checkout line to purchase eligible SNAP food items. The cost of SNAP items is automatically subtracted from the SNAP EBT account, and the remaining balance appears on the receipt after checkout.
Although SNAP EBT cards function like debit cards, there’s a significant difference in that SNAP EBT cards can be used to purchase only food and require retailer authorization. For example, retailers need to verify whether the EBT card the shopper uses is active and that a valid PIN has been entered. Then, retailers must verify that the purchase amount doesn’t exceed the household account balance available. Since the verification process requires most retailers to have specific software to accept EBT payments, the system isn’t fail-proof. Technology doesn’t always work the way it’s intended, so sometimes retailers must call the EBT verification phone line to authorize purchases. When this occurs, retailers use a paper voucher to keep track of the sales, so when the system goes back online, they can enter the sale and receive reimbursement. Due to the additional verification steps required for purchases, using online grocery purchasing wasn’t available before 2019. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the added function to order groceries online was fast-tracked from a pilot test to a national rollout with a limited number of retailers that had stores throughout the United States. (SNAP benefits, however, don’t pay for delivery charges.) The pandemic-EBT program also was instituted to provide additional funds for families with children who would have received free or reduced-price school meals. Both SNAP program improvements are aimed at further reducing the rates of food insecurity.
SNAP Retailer Requirements
To become a retailer that accepts SNAP benefits, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service requires authorization. Eligibility is partly based on one of two criteria—inventory or sales. A retailer’s inventory must include at least three different types of foods in each of the four staple food groups: 1) meat, poultry, or fish; 2) breads or cereals; 3) vegetables or fruits; and 4) dairy products. At least two categories must include perishable foods. Since January 2018, eligibility to become a SNAP vendor required retailers to have fruits and vegetables in stock, although they didn’t have to be fresh if other perishable foods such as meat or dairy were sold. To qualify based on sales, 50% of a store’s gross retail sales must come from that of staple foods. Many specialty stores, such as butcher shops or produce vendors, qualify based on sales. There are some exceptions to these criteria for retailers that are in areas where SNAP participants have limited access to food.6
Notably, SNAP redemptions represent a substantial income for retailers. More than 250,000 retailers are authorized to accept SNAP benefits in the United States, including big-box stores and supermarkets, convenience stores, specialty stores, and farmer’s markets. Nearly 80% of SNAP benefits are redeemed at larger retailers, but most authorized retailers are smaller stores that include many locally owned businesses.
Healthful Eating Challenges of SNAP Participants
Certainly, participation in the SNAP program is effective at reducing food insecurity, which is linked with improved health and lower health care costs. However, the SNAP program doesn’t appear to improve the nutritional intake or shopping behaviors of participants. A 2016 study showed that SNAP households and non-SNAP households purchased similar foods and shared many of the same poor dietary patterns as most Americans.7
Furthermore, the Thrifty Food Plan, developed to model a nutritionally adequate diet at minimal cost and serve as the basis of SNAP program reimbursements, hasn’t been updated since 2006. The Thrifty Food Plan needs to be updated to align with the food and nutrition recommendations outlined in the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the monetary benefits adjusted for inflation over the past 15 years. It’s estimated that SNAP benefits fall short about $11 per person per week to meet the current dietary recommendations and assumes that nutritious meals can be prepared from scratch. These updates to the Thrifty Food Plan have the potential to further reduce food insecurity among low-income Americans.8,9
In contrast to other federally funded food programs, including WIC and School Meals Programs, that have restrictions on foods based on their nutritional quality, there are no restrictions that dictate the nutritional quality of foods SNAP participants can purchase. The majority of Americans don’t consume the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables per day; however, lower-income groups consume even less compared with higher-income groups. Instead of setting restrictions on food purchases based on nutritional quality, the SNAP program has offered incentives by increasing the purchasing power of participants to buy fruits and vegetables. By creating short-term rewards for healthful behaviors, such as lowering the cost of fruits and vegetables, the price-driven incentive programs can play an important role in changing behaviors and influencing food choices.
The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive program, formerly known as the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, provides grant funding to support and evaluate projects intended to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by low-income consumers participating in the SNAP program. Examples of successful incentive programs that have increased the consumption of fresh produce among SNAP consumers include Double-Up Food Bucks programs as well as fruit and vegetable prescription programs.10 The Double-Up Food Bucks programs aim at boosting the purchase of locally grown fruits and vegetables by doubling the purchasing power of SNAP. Fruit and vegetable prescription programs use health care providers in the community to prescribe fruits and vegetables for specific health concerns (eg, diabetes) and provide vouchers for use at specific retailers and/or farmers’ markets to supplement food budgets to buy fresh produce.
In addition, the USDA’s partnership with the Farmers Market Coalition has provided equipment and resources to make it easier for farmers and local market vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables to accept SNAP EBT as payment. There’s evidence that farmers’ market programs positively impact fruit and vegetable purchases and increase participants’ exposure to markets that offer affordable, healthful food options.
Opportunities for Dietitians
Dietitians are uniquely qualified to help SNAP shoppers overcome many of the barriers they face to engage in healthful eating. A study released in June 2021 entitled “Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Allotments” found that 88% of participants reported encountering some type of barrier to healthful eating in addition to cost. The barriers to healthful eating cited include a lack of time to prepare meals from scratch (30%), knowledge about healthful foods (16%), storage for fresh or cooked foods (14%), kitchen equipment (11%), and cooking skills (11%).2
Keep in mind that meal planning is a compulsory skill every dietitian learns. But individuals who have faced economic hardships throughout their lives may not have gained the skills to plan nutritionally balanced, affordable meals, so start with the basics and make few assumptions. SNAP shoppers may not have much time to participate in free nutrition classes, so offer short, bite-sized educational information that can go a long way. Offer handouts and free resources that provide affordable, time-saving solutions for healthful family meals based on a $2 meal reimbursement and consistent with allowable SNAP foods (ie, no prepared rotisserie chicken or other prepared hot foods). Take into consideration the extremely limited budgets SNAP shoppers face, and offer multiple options that appeal to adults and children as well as time-saving tips to serve meals in minutes.
Nutrition education for SNAP participants regarding healthful foods should focus more on visual cues (eg, pictures and less words) and recognizable food groups (eg, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins) instead of nutrients (eg, vitamins and minerals). Shopping for healthful food can highlight important concepts such as unit pricing and how to make multiple meals from sale items. Some shoppers may not have access to the latest kitchen gadgets so share ideas for no-cook meals and recipes that call for the use of basic kitchen appliances. As a general rule, when in doubt, spell out how to prepare and cook items to ensure they’re safe to eat (eg, cooking times, visual examples), look appetizing, and taste good, too. Helping SNAP shoppers make healthful choices requires dietitians to learn about their local community, know what barriers they face, and be aware of the local resources available to help them extend their food budgets.
— Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, is a retail supermarket industry expert and the owner of MarketRD.com, a consultancy that provides health and wellness marketing solutions that drive results.
1. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Chart book: SNAP helps struggling families put food on the table. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/3-13-12fa-chartbook.pdf. Published November 7, 2019.
2. USDA releases study on hurdles to healthy eating on SNAP. US Department of Agriculture website. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/06/23/usda-releases-study-hurdles-healthy-eating-snap. Published June 23, 2021.
3. Hall L. A closer look at who benefits from SNAP: state-by-state fact sheets. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/a-closer-look-at-who-benefits-from-snap-state-by-state-fact-sheets#Alabama. Updated January 12, 2021.
4. A quick guide to SNAP eligibility and benefits. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/a-quick-guide-to-snap-eligibility-and-benefits. Updated September 1, 2020.
5. SNAP data tables. US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service website. https://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap. Updated July 30, 2021.
6. Store eligibility requirements. US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service website. https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailer/eligible. Updated June 16, 2021.
7. US Department of Agriculture. Foods typically purchased by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) households. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/ops/SNAPFoodsTypicallyPurchased.pdf. Published November 2016.
8. Carlson S, Keith-Jennings B; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. SNAP is linked with improved nutritional outcomes and lower health care costs. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/1-17-18fa.pdf. Published January 17, 2018.
9. Carlson S, Llobrera J, Keith-Jennings B; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More adequate SNAP benefits would help millions of participants better afford food. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/7-30-19fa.pdf. Updated July 15, 2021.
10. Engel K, Ruder EH. Fruit and vegetable incentive programs for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants: a scoping review of program structure. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1676.