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International Health

April 13, 2021

Five Policy Changes the Biden Administration and Congress Should Make to Strengthen SNAP and Improve Health Among Low-Income Americans


The Biden Administration and the U.S. Congress should take immediate action to strengthen SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the largest government nutrition assistance program in the U.S., according to a new commentary by authors at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

The commentary was published on April 13 in the Milbank Quarterly’s Building Back Better Opinion Series. 

“The number of people who receive SNAP in the U.S. has risen dramatically during the pandemic, as the program quickly responded to the economic disruption of the pandemic,” says Julia Wolfson, PhD, lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of International Health’s Human Nutrition Program at the Bloomberg School. “Yet, many of these households still struggle to maintain a healthy diet. And, there are many more in need who remain ineligible for SNAP benefits.” 

The policy recommendations fall into five broad categories and seek to address SNAP shortfalls that have been exacerbated by and predate the pandemic. They are:

  1. Increase benefits: Raise the minimum SNAP benefit and increase benefits by at least 15% for all participants for the duration of the economic downturn and re-examine the cost of food and food preparation so that SNAP benefits reflect the true cost of a healthy diet.
  2. Expand grocery delivery: Temporarily subsidize online delivery fees for SNAP participants during the pandemic and explore permanent options to make online grocery services more accessible.
  3. Focus more on nutrition: Increase benefits for buying fruits and vegetables and allow states to remove sugar sweetened beverages (e.g. soda) from the list of foods covered by SNAP. 
  4. Adapt to reflect the reality of food procurement and preparation: Allow prepared foods, such as sandwiches, to be covered by SNAP, as it is often unrealistic to expect every meal to be made from scratch, especially by parents working two jobs to make ends meet. Invest in improving cooking skills and nutrition knowledge that can lead to healthier eating habits.
  5. Allow college students access: Waive the strict work requirements applied to adults without dependents that often prevents college students, who are increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity, from receiving SNAP benefits. 

In December 2020, the authors fielded a national survey of Americans with income less than 250% of the federal poverty to gauge their support for these policy changes. The results show broad bipartisan support of these recommendations among low-income Americans, an important stakeholder group in SNAP policy discussions and the very constituency SNAP seeks to serve. The survey results accompany the editorial which is available here.

Meeting the moment: Policy changes to strengthen SNAP and improve health was written by Julia A. Wolfson, Cindy W. Leung, and Alyssa Moran.

Funding for the survey was from faculty research funds from the University of Michigan where Wolfson was a faculty member at the time of data collection. Wolfson was supported by the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive And Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (Award #K01DK119166) and Leung was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (Award #4R00HD084758).