A young boy wearing a mask selects fruit in a grocery store.

Expanded SNAP Benefits Boosted Food Security During the COVID-19 Emergency, Study Finds

Households in the food assistance program made healthier food purchases in 2020, additional research shows

At the height of the pandemic, households receiving SNAP benefits were more likely to be able to access sufficient and nutritious food, researchers from the University of Minnesota found.1

As part of federal financial assistance during the COVID-19 emergency, U.S. lawmakers expanded SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Changes included streamlining the application process, opening eligibility to more groups (including students and other adults out of work), and increasing benefits for existing participants.

During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, between 2019 and 2021, the share of food-secure SNAP households increased by 8.6 percentage points. Researchers compared the share of food-secure households participating in the program in 2019 to the shares in 2020 and 2021 using data from the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement.

The increase in food security during the pandemic was not driven by changes in the sociodemographic characteristics of SNAP participants between the compared years—specifically, higher participation by better resourced households was not the driver, they found. Instead, the researchers posited that pandemic-backed policies and programs to improve food security may have been the main drivers.

By capturing changes in food security rates among SNAP households during a period of expanded food access, this research can help policymakers understand people’s food needs and shape policy to reduce food insecurity, the researchers said.

The Minnesota study also found that households receiving emergency food (from a church, food pantry, food bank, or soup kitchen) saw a 10.4 percentage point increase in food security prevalence in 2021 compared to 2019. Food security also increased among households that did not receive emergency food, but to a much smaller degree (6.6 percentage points). Patrick Brady, lead author of the study, explained, “This may be due to the support provided by emergency food providers but may also be due to households with greater resources using emergency food resources during the pandemic.”

The changes in SNAP policy during the COVID-19 emergency may have played a significant role in battling hunger nationwide, the research suggests. In Brady’s view, the strength of these and other similar findings suggest that “more adequately meeting the basic food needs of low-income households should be a priority among policymakers.”

“Continuing to implement and expand improvements to the social safety net…has the potential to improve food security, which would be an important public health achievement,” Brady said.

SNAP Shoppers Bought Healthier Foods During the Pandemic

A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study found that SNAP shoppers in North Carolina bought fewer “less-healthful” food items in the first year of the pandemic, yet most SNAP purchases were still of foods in the “less-healthful” food category.2

Analyzing card transaction data, Amy Lo and colleagues found a significant drop in the average share of sugar-sweetened drinks and “less-healthful” food purchased by SNAP shoppers between October 1 and December 31, 2020, compared to the period before the pandemic (October 1 to December 31, 2019). Differences in food access between rural and urban areas did not affect SNAP shoppers’ food choices, the researchers found.

While SNAP remains effective in increasing food security rates and food access among participants, Lo said, “One major factor affecting purchase behavior and diet is the food environment, which has been observed to influence diet-related disease risk.” Lower-income and rural households face more barriers to healthier diets because they often live in food deserts or food swamps—areas with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutrient-dense food items.

This study identified SNAP shoppers using loyalty-card transactions and point-of-sales data from nearly 500 North Carolina grocery stores. The researchers linked store-level findings to barcode and nutritional label data to identify food items, then categorized food by nutritional value using the USDA Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies.

Comparing the total share of calories by food type before and during the pandemic, the researchers reported that SNAP shoppers (see figure):

  • Increased purchases of processed meat and seafood, such as frozen chicken wings, deli meats, and frozen breaded shrimp.
  • Reduced purchases of sugar-sweetened drinks, such as soda, juices with added sugar, and energy drinks, and “less-healthful” items, like potato chips, cake, and flavored coffee creamer.
Figure 1: SNAP Shoppers Bought Fewer Sweetened Drinks and Less “Less-Healthful” Food During the Pandemic

*Statistically significant difference.

Source: Amy E. Lo, Emily W. Duffy, and Shu Wen Ng, “Differences in a Chain Supermarket’s Sales to SNAP Shoppers Before and Since the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 55, no. 5 (2023): 343-53.

 

The results showed no significant differences in the types of purchases made in urban and rural counties, measured by the share of calories from any of the food categories. Using a food environment index that measures access to healthy foods across counties, Lo and colleagues also found that SNAP shoppers in North Carolina counties with better access to healthy foods bought more fruits and vegetables and fewer sugar-sweetened drinks.

While SNAP improved food security and the quality of food purchased during the pandemic, Lo said, “more support is needed to ensure healthy food access through policies aimed at increasing resiliency in the food supply chain” during catastrophes and emergencies such as the pandemic.

Overall, the positive effect of the changes in SNAP policy during the pandemic offers policymakers a framework to build on to further improve food security for low-income and rural people nationwide, Lo added.

 


References

  1. Patrick J. Brady et al., “Food Security Among SNAP Participants 2019 to 2021: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement Data,” Journal of Natural Science 12 (2023): e45.
  2. Amy E. Lo, Emily W. Duffy, and Shu Wen Ng, “Differences in a Chain Supermarket’s Sales to SNAP Shoppers Before and Since the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 55, no. 5 (2023): 343-53.