Change to SNAP program may level playing field between home, school meals

Old plan last updated in 1975
School lunch to go
Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 26, 2021

CLEVELAND — For the first time since 1975, part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is getting an overhaul.

The update means money families spend on food will go further. That can help close the gap between nutrition at school and what kids get when they're home.

Lunchtime at schools is organized chaos. There are a lot of moving parts — from the lines, to getting good on trays, to ringing kids up to taking a break from learning, the purpose of these lunches can get lost.

"Students who come into our schools are able to get those fresh fruits and vegetables, those lean proteins that may be out of reach for them at home," said Chris Burkhardt, the executive director of school nutrition at Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

The trays in districts across Ohio are full of food that will help keep kids satisfied while they're in school. But, sometimes, when they go home the same kind of meals aren't available.

"They get really excited by the apples, oranges, bananas, pears, green beans," Burkhardt said.

A change in part of the SNAP benefits may level the playing field.

"So the average person will see an increase in their benefits of about $12-$16," said Kimberly LoVano with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

That increase is per-person, per-month. It is a result of a change in the "Thrifty Food Plan." The plan is put together from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"And it's called thrifty for a reason," LoVano said. "You have to be thrifty to stretch your budget enough to keep food on the table with the amount of money that it costs."

This food plan is the "bare minimum" for what could be spent and still have what the USDA said is a nutritious meal. The plan wasn't keeping up.

"SNAP benefits were way too modest before the pandemic hit," LoVano said. "A $1.40 per person per meal is barely enough to keep food on the table."

The updated plan takes food prices and modern eating habits into consideration. There are more fish and vegetables listed and less time-intensive foods. For example, the prior version of the plan "counted on families spending a couple hours a day preparing dried beans to consume," said Joree Novotny with the Ohio Association of Food Banks.

Now it factors in canned and frozen foods and the increase in prices at the grocery stores.

The outdated plan means meals at home weren't the same as meals in school, and Burkhardt said CMSD could see the impact playing out in lunchrooms on Mondays.

"They may have had a meal," he said about the increase of free breakfasts handed out on Monday mornings. "They may have had food but they may not have had nutrition and that's what's important here."

He said this change to the thrifty food plan is a good first step for families in Cleveland as the area battles the highest childhood poverty rate in the country.