Since Arkansas ended emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program supplements on June 30, eating healthy has only become more difficult for Tammy Benton and her family.
“We paid $7.05 for a gallon of milk the other day, just plain Jane milk,” Benton said. “… For people that have SNAP benefits, with the prices going up 30 to 50% on a lot of stuff … they can only get half of the amount of stuff, which means buying non-healthy.”
Arkansas provided supplemental benefits for families receiving SNAP, but these extra amounts expired due to Gov. Asa Hutchinson ending the state of emergency in May. This returned families to pre-pandemic benefit amounts, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
The expiration of emergency benefits does not impact pandemic EBT that families with students will receive, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
However, families like the Bentons continue to struggle as both food prices and COVID-19 cases increase in Arkansas.
Re-evaluating healthy eating on SNAP
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps with a portion of a family’s food budget. Families enrolled in the program receive an EBT card, which functions like a debit card, allowing them to buy eligible food items.
The amount of SNAP benefits a family receives is based on the Thrifty Food Plan, which determines the cost of a nutritious diet based on the size of a household.
The value of the Thrifty Food Plan has remained the same since 1975. While SNAP benefits have adjusted for inflation, the ability of families to purchase healthy foods has decreased.
In a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in June, 61% of SNAP participants reported cost as a barrier to healthy eating.
A USDA spokesperson said there is an ongoing re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is currently based on the 1997-2005 Dietary Reference Intakes, 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the 2005 MyPyramid food intake recommendations.
Using several sources including the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025,” the USDA will update the Thrifty Food Plan to “fulfill the nutritional needs of each age and gender group on a budget,” the spokesperson said.
As a part of the re-evaluation, they are conducting focus groups with SNAP participants, hunger advocates, the medical and public health community and others impacted by the program.
They are also examining how “practical considerations, such as time and convenience, come into play,” the spokesperson said.
For Benton, this change is more than needed, as she has witnessed neighbors struggle due to limited time or disabilities.
“They’re too busy working two or three jobs or raising six kids by themselves … or they’re older and in a wheelchair,” Benton said. “Times have changed, it’s different now and if we’re going to change everything else to meet the needs of people, we honestly need to change the way things are done.”
Affording a healthy diet
Across the nation, over 42 million people received SNAP benefits in April, according to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
Arkansas, which was ranked fifth in the nation by U.S. News and World Report for its poverty rate, has over 30,000 residents receiving SNAP benefits.
In Sebastian County, where Benton and her family live, 23% of children live in poverty — three points higher than the national average, according to a 2019 Urban Institute study.
“People want to retire here. I don’t understand it. They go to California, and they make millions of dollars, and then they move to Arkansas because everything’s so cheap,” Benton said. “And yes, maybe compared to California, it is. But if you’ve lived here most of your life, it’s not cheap here.”
By re-evaluating the Thrifty Food Plan, the USDA aims to “ensure the TFP affords families a realistic, healthy diet on a budget,” according to the released statement.
The re-evaluation is expected to be finished by the end of 2022, as outlined in the 2018 Farm Bill. However, an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in January pushed to expedite the re-evaluation.
“We are working as quickly as possible while still maintaining the scientific integrity of our efforts … We believe this is an urgent issue, and we are aiming to have it completed by the end of this summer,” a USDA spokesperson said.
A growing need
In the meantime, Benton is using her garden to grow healthy foods like tomatoes and okra. To buy the plants, she used her EBT card.
She acknowledged while this option works for her, for families that do not have space for a garden, or for individuals with disabilities, this may not be a possibility. She added that it is even harder for those without appliances to store fresh foods.
Benton went on to explain that families in these situations often rely on unhealthy, cheap and readily available food to fend off hunger.
“It’s like nobody ever took this into consideration. Whoever was doing it was either city folk with one refrigerator, one child, one parent and no garden area,” Benton said. “I don’t understand how they did not calculate this was not possible.”
“It’s like everybody just stopped and they thought, ‘Oh well, they’ll figure it out.’ Yeah, no … and we’re not the only state having that problem. I know that,” Benton said. “It’s just I look at us as pretty smart people in Arkansas, and I don’t know why we haven’t figured this out.”
Although state human services departments are unable to influence the outcome of the re-evaluation, “we share the common goal of administering the SNAP program as effectively and efficiently as possible,” said Gavin Lesnick, deputy chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
Lesnick shared information about different programs for SNAP participants, including the Double-Up Food Bucks program that is partnered with the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention.
“Through this initiative, SNAP recipients can receive a $1-to-$1 match on up to $20 of locally purchased grown produce at any farmer markets and farm stands across the state,” Lesnick said.
A hopeful but partial solution
Local organizations in the fight against hunger point to the USDA re-evaluation as a hopeful but partial solution.
As the director of SNAP outreach for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Lance Whitney sees the intersectional nature of hunger.
“Food insecurity comes with baggage. It could be housing or shelter, basic needs, clothing. Every day these families fighting food insecurity are choosing between education, items of warmth or coolness, utilities, transportation … the ability to get to the location that has the food,” Whitney said.
He explained how the food provided through SNAP serves as a foundation individuals need to pursue education and employment, which benefits the community.
Ultimately, Whitney hopes the public will support individuals receiving assistance rather than judge them for seeking help.
“I do feel in my heart that there is not a child in this world that got up in the morning and said, ‘Boy, I can’t wait until I’m older, and I don’t have enough food,’ or ‘I can’t wait until I’m older, and I have to rely on assistance from other people,’” Whitney said. “There’s not a senior that wants to admit that they can’t afford what they need for a good healthy existence in this world.”
“These are situations have been placed in for whatever reason,” Whitney said, “and we need to remember that before we, as a public, judge who they are and how they got there, we have to be willing to open up our whole life and let someone else judge our decisions.”
Catherine Nolte is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She can be reached at [email protected]