Recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are set to receive an average of 40 cents more per meal, a 27% increase in benefits that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says is based on changes in the way people eat as well as the nutrition guidance offered by the federal government.

Vilsack on Monday announced the results of a reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, a Department of Agriculture calculation used to determine SNAP benefits. The changes result in an increase of about $36 per month to an average benefit of about $169 per month; overall, the increase represents about a $20 billion annual increase in the total cost of the program.

The 2018 farm bill directed USDA to reevaluate the TFP by 2022 and every five years after that. The reevaluation — the first such examination in 15 years — specifically examined the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans and cooking patterns of consumers to arrive at the increase, the largest rise in the program’s history.

“The numbers are what they are,” Vilsack told reporters Monday. “It’s pretty hard to argue that nothing has changed in 15 years when in fact we’ve got three different sets of dietary guidelines, food prices have increased, food choices have expanded dramatically, and people’s consumptions patterns and the way in which they produce food has changed significantly in 15 years. It is what it is.”

Recipients will begin receiving the larger benefits at the beginning of October. Vilsack said states — which administer the benefits — “are going to have to do some quick work to change their systems so on October 1st, the benefit change can come into play.”

News of the increase first emerged over the weekend, but on Friday, the GOP leaders of the House and Senate Ag Committees called for a Government Accountability Office to probe the TFP update.

“The complexity of this process, and its likely impacts, create an urgent need for scrutiny, particularly on the heels of significant nutrition-related pandemic spending that has continued without rigorous oversight,” Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said in a letter to GAO. “While we expect this process will elicit an increase to the cost of the thrifty food plan — and subsequently monthly SNAP allotments — questions remain as to how the Department has gone about this review and update, including their methodologies."

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Specifically, the leaders asked for 11 particular items to be addressed, including differences from previous processes, changes in the calculations and whether USDA can point to an increase in benefits leading to higher consumption of healthier foods.

Vilsack, who spoke with Boozman and Thompson Sunday, said he “certainly understands they have questions, and I assured them we’ll be happy to answer the questions they have.” But he also pointed to flexibility given to USDA in the law and said the increased benefit was necessary to reflect current realities in how recipients eat.

“There was no constraint on the choices we had to make and could make in connection with this evaluation in the farm bill,” Vilsack said. “Congress didn’t say ‘the only way you could do this was in a cost-neutral way.’”

“We need to modernize (TFP’s) assumptions based on what’s actually happening in kitchens and homes across America,” he added. “You cannot convince me — and maybe you can convince my friends on the other side of the aisle about this — that people are spending an hour and a half every single day preparing food from scratch.”

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