Food and Nutrition Security

SNAP Could Close the Food Insecurity Gap Between Black and White Households, Study Finds. But Researchers Say There’s So Much More That Could Be Done.

Jun 30, 2023

During the last two decades, food insecurity rates have consistently been higher for Black Americans, though a new study suggests access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could help bridge this gap.

The study, released Monday by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and other research universities, found that though racial disparities existed among low-income households not participating in SNAP, these disparities were not found among those with access to SNAP benefits. The study analyzed data between February and December 2022.

However, the authors also suggested that the current SNAP program “is not eliminating racial disparities in food insecurity,” citing structural and systemic factors.

Less than 55% of all eligible households participated in SNAP, the authors found, even though longitudinal studies have shown SNAP has reduced food insecurity by around 30%. This could be due to barriers to participation disproportionately impacting certain communities, said Laura Samuel, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who led the study, in an interview.

The results come as SNAP’s pandemic-era expansion ended in March and millions of Americans lost hundreds of dollars from their grocery budgets. Monthly allotments were slashed from $281 to $23 for those who only qualified for the minimum SNAP benefit, such as older Americans receiving Social Security payments. This drop has led many to avoid applying for SNAP benefits since some think they may not get enough to make the process worthwhile, Samuel said.

Another nearly 750,000 adults may lose their SNAP benefits following new work-reporting requirements included in the new debt-ceiling deal passed in early June.

“One of the reasons why people attack SNAP is because of the mistaken belief that communities of color are just living off these benefits when we realize that instead, that’s not the truth,” said Gina Plata-Nino, SNAP deputy director at the Food Research & Action Center, who did not participate in this study.

SNAP participation can bridge the racial divide in food security
Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the study looked at nearly 5,000 households eligible for SNAP across different racial demographics, all with incomes at 130% or lower of the federal poverty threshold.

While Black households had 20% higher food insecurity rates, they were 46% more likely to participate in SNAP than white households.

For those not enrolled in SNAP, Black and multiracial households respectively had a 52% and 42% higher risk of food insecurity than white households. However, for those participating in SNAP, the disparities for both Black and multi-racial households were entirely eliminated. When accounting for household characteristics, Black households enrolled in SNAP had a lower rate of food insecurity than white households.

The reduction in racial disparities could have a broad impact on inequities in healthcare, as a reduction in food insecurity could lessen the prevalence of numerous health conditions and lower healthcare expenses.

“We’re thinking about future generations and their ability to be contributing members to society, and so addressing the problem of hunger through an effective program like SNAP gives people agency, empowers them physically, in some cases mentally, to be able to better sustain themselves,” said Heather Taylor, managing director of advocacy organization Bread for the World, who advocates for SNAP expansion.

Combating racial disparities is like “playing a game of Whac-a-Mole”
Despite these numbers, access to SNAP benefits are part of larger, harder-to-fix systemic racial inequalities.

Predominantly Black communities often have higher food costs due to fewer grocery stores and less access to healthy produce, Samuel said. Though SNAP helps these communities by giving residents money for food, Samuel said these benefits could be better adjusted to reflect varying living and food costs in different states.

“Even though SNAP is a federal program, the states are responsible for administering it, and there’s wide variation in terms of whether states allow people to easily navigate their websites, if there’s trouble finding large print forms that people with visual impairments might need, or access to helplines,” Samuel said.

Plata-Nino added that there is more investment in SNAP and other programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in states with a large white majority.

“It’s a little bit like playing a game of Whac-a-Mole in that our society is structured in such racist ways that food systems and food environments have pervasive structural racism in them,” Samuel said. “We as a society should ask the bigger picture question about can we kind of prevent the food insecurity in the first place, rather than forcing people to become food insecure and then enroll in SNAP because they need it.”

Even though Black and multiracial households enrolled in SNAP at higher rates according to the study, geographical factors disproportionately impacting these communities such as food deserts and less access to community assistance could factor into why total SNAP enrollment was just 55%.

The SNAP enrollment process is often tedious and may have requirements disproportionately impacting Black and multiracial households, Samuel said. Unstable internet access and higher rates of disabilities could also serve as barriers for these communities.

“Many of these applications are written at a high college level, and it doesn’t mean that applicants are not capable of doing it, but keep this in mind, it takes a lawyer sometimes to understand those applications,” Plata-Nino said.

The authors propose implementing universal food insecurity screening, which can reduce these racial disparities and ultimately prevent associated health consequences.

“There are people who are food-insecure both on and off of SNAP, and there’s a need to more consistently identify them and address it quickly,” Samuel said.

By Noah Sheidlower
Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images