2021 Thrifty Food Plan – Widespread Appeal and Potential Impact

Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) was updated this week? Whether you answer “yes” or “no,” you are not alone! Many people, food policy nerds and economists notwithstanding, had not heard about the TFP until this week. Mostly because there was nothing to tell. Before 2021, the Thrifty Food Plan was updated on an irregular basis and to reflect inflation in food costs, not the actual cost of food in various localities.

Yet, today, when I searched “Thrifty Food Plan” in Google, it returned “about 10,200,000 results in 0.56 seconds”!

What is the TFP?

At its core, the 2021 TFP is a measure of: 1) current food prices; 2) food composition data; 3) consumption patterns; and 4) dietary guidance to produce sample “market baskets” that reflect what people should eat based on the foods individuals choose most frequently. The TFP calculates the minimum amount of money it would take a composite family of four to eat healthfully on a given day, week, and month. Most importantly, this calculation informs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; previously known as food stamps) benefit allotment for individuals and families.

Why is the 2021 TFP so newsworthy?

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, in 2019, approximately 10.5% of households were food insecure (having limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways) at least at some time during the year, including 4.1% of households with very low food security.[1] Before thinking that the total percentage experiencing food insecurity sounds relatively low compared to the percentage of families living in food secure households, consider this:

  • 4.1%, is 5.3 million households1;
  • 10.5% of food insecure households is the equivalent of approximately 1 in 9 individuals and 1 in 7 children[2]; and
  • These levels were the lowest they had been for 20 years and preceded the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged our economy and drove food insecurity up in populations that had never experienced it before.2

In fact, Feeding America estimates that 45 million people (1 in 7), including 15 million children (1 in 5), may have experienced food insecurity in 2020 and projects that 42 million people (1 in 8), including 13 million children (1 in 6), may experience food insecurity in 2021.2 This makes extra money for individuals and households to use to purchase healthy food all that more crucial, particularly when the calculation has been cost-neutral in every prior update and food prices are elevated, secondary to the pandemic. And, the 2021 TFP delivers as the analysis concluded that the cost of a nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet is 21% higher than the previous TFP.[3]

What’s next?

It was front page news material this week that, as of October 1, 2021, SNAP participants will receive $36.24 more per person/month (an additional $1.19 per day).3 With these additional funds will come a mandate to support SNAP participants in using the additional benefits to build healthy eating patterns for themselves and their families. This is a sobering responsibility since USDA scientists, as part of the evidence, found a relationship between higher income and higher-cost market baskets; higher-cost market baskets and better diet quality (based on Healthy Eating Index scores); and greater time spent by lower income individuals on food-at-home-related activities.[4]  Diet quality is not and should not be income-dependent.

How can we all help?

Fostering food and nutrition security in towns, cities, countries, and the world cannot just be the job of governments and nonprofit organizations. Rather, we all have a part in supporting healthier eating behaviors, and those of us in the food and nutrition or healthcare sectors have an elevated responsibility.

Consider the following three opportunities as a place to start:

  1. Culturally Relevant Education. Admittedly late to the game as a society, but better late than never, we need to help American consumers build a healthy plate and, subsequently, healthy eating patterns based on what their plates look like. This means, we must crack the complex code on how to help real people spend real money on healthy foods they enjoy and then prepare them healthfully in accordance with their cultural foodways and traditions. Keep an eye out for 30-day sample menu plans for several cultural foodways coming soon from USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) (health professional resource).
  2. Responsible and Realistic Messaging. The time has come for us to get our messaging right. For instance, the public health community (of which I have long been a part of) has created a monster by pushing fresh fruits and vegetables, above all others, for decades. As a result, the vast majority of produce purchased is fresh and 80% and 90% of Americans, respectively, do not consume enough fruits and vegetables. In this day and age, consumers crave convenience and affordability, as well as having their food last as long as possible so as to reduce trips to the store and food waste. We need to help consumers learn to fish by identifying the foods and beverages that they enjoy, and work for their lifestyle (frozen fruit anyone?), to build healthy dietary patterns. CNPP is coming out with a digital tool later this year called “Shop Simple with MyPlate” to help consumers do just that.
  3. Forward-Looking Research. There are outstanding questions in the current TFP – gaps that can hopefully be answered before the next analysis. For instance: How to best account for household food loss/waste? Are convenience and time savings adequately covered in the calculation? How best to reflect the diversity of intake patterns while trying to improve overall healthfulness? Spoiler alert: we will save this discussion for a separate blog in the near future!

[1] Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian A. Gregory, and Anita Singh. 2020. Household Food Security in the United States in 2019, ERR-275, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

[2] Feeding America. 2021. The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 & 2021. https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021-03/National%20Projections%20Brief_3.9.2021_0.pdf.

[3] U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thrifty Food Plan, 2021. August 2021. FNS-916. Available at https://FNS.usda.gov/TFP

[4] Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review Team. Income, Cost, Time, and Convenience of Food: A Series of Rapid Reviews and Evidence Scans. USDA Food Plans Rapid Reviews and Evidence Scans. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, August 2021. Available at: https://nesr.usda.gov/usda-foodplans-rapid-reviews-and-evidence-scans.

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