A Scientific Approach to Fighting Hunger in the US

Published Oct 19, 2021

Food systems and health analyst Sarah Reinhardt discusses recent updates to the USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, which will give more people access to healthy, nutritious food.

In this episode

Colleen and Sarah discuss:

  • a much-needed update to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits
  • how these benefits are analyzed and updated
  • how nutrition science research can improve by using a systems thinking approach
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:30)
Intro (0:30-2:25)
Interview p1 (2:25-13:16)
Break (13:16-14:41)
Interview p2 (14:41-23:35)
Throw (23:35-25:05)
Segment (25:05-27:54)
Outro (27:54-29:00)


Segment: Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: Before we get to the good news, I’m going to share a sad story about a a friend of mine was widowed young, with two small children. She’d been a stay-at-home mom, and as a legal battle over her late husband’s life insurance dragged on for months, she had no income, and no money to feed her kids. So she applied for and received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan benefits, or SNAP—basically, help from the federal government to buy food. It’s what used to be known as food stamps. I watched in awe as she became an expert at maximizing her benefits, planning meals ahead for weeks, and buying as much nutritious food as she could to make sure her kids were eating well. She’s off SNAP now, but I know she’ll always be grateful for the assistance during one of the darkest and most stressful times in her life.

My friend’s in great company. With the pandemic making it impossible for many people to work, the number of individuals on SNAP in 2020 increased by more than 20 percent, from 36 million in 2019 to 44 million. SNAP is a literal lifeline for families who are struggling. And at UCS, we’re big SNAP fans.

So when I heard that a program under SNAP known as the Thrifty Food Plan was being updated for the first time in 15 years, I thought first of my thrifty friend. And then I thought of my colleague Sarah Reinhardt, a registered dietitian and senior analyst for food systems and health at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She’s also our guest for this episode. Sarah joined me to explain why this update is so important, and how SNAP and other government programs can better serve our friends across the country who need extra help… and finally, to confirm her passionate love for beans.

Colleen: Sarah, welcome to the podcast.

Sarah: Thank you, Colleen.

Colleen: You were on the podcast a while back and we talked at length about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. So today we're gonna talk about another piece of the equation that helps get healthy food to those who need it most. But can you refresh our memory by telling us about SNAP?

Sarah: So if you don't know anything else about SNAP, just know that it is truly the first line of defense against hunger for people in the United States. There are about 40 million people across more than 20 million households who use this program in a given year. And the vast majority of SNAP participants are children, seniors, and people with disabilities. And this has been a particularly crucial program during this past year, as you can imagine, when so many more people were facing financial hardship.

Colleen: Right. And we have some good news today. We know that the Thrifty Food Plan was recently updated. And that was really big news, but what is it exactly and why was it big news?

Sarah: Okay. So to describe the Thrifty Food Plan in a really basic way, the Thrifty Food Plan is an estimate of the least amount of money that you could realistically spend on food and still eat a healthy diet. And Colleen, realistically, it's an operative word here, and I'll come back to that later. Do you like that little teaser?

So, you can think of the Thrifty Food Plan kinda like a shopping cart. So, the idea is, I'm going through the grocery store with my shopping cart, right, and I'm putting in all the foods I need to eat a healthy diet. So, think like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, but I'm also, for the most part, choosing the foods that cost the least. So, this is sort of how people shop anyways, but it's scientific. So, make it science. And this update is a really big deal because it found that the cost of a low-cost or thrifty healthy diet has increased by about 21% in the last 15 years. And that means that people who participate in SNAP, right, this program we just talked about, are going to see a much-needed bump in their monthly benefits.

Colleen: Doesn't food cost more or less, depending on where you shop?

Sarah: Oh, totally, right? We've both been to Whole Foods. Your shopping cart at Whole Foods is going to cost a heck of a lot more than your shopping cart at Save A Lot. And your shopping cart in New York City is probably gonna cost more than your shopping cart in Des Moines, Iowa. So, the estimate that the USDA provides is based on research that the federal government does on average food prices for these different model categories that are part of the Thrifty Food Plan. And those prices do take geographic variation into account, although there are no different Thrifty Food Plans depending on where you are.

So there's not one for Iowa. There's not one for New York. It's a national average. So there is a little bit of variability in there that they can't quite account for. But the cost is adjusted by household size, which makes a lot of sense. If it's just you and your shopping cart, that's gonna look a lot different than if it's you and your three teenagers, and your partner and, you know, a grandparent in the household. So there's a lot of variation that can happen depending on family size. And the plan does account for that when it's being used to calculate folks' benefit levels.

Colleen: I'm thinking of your visual of going through the grocery store and filling up your cart with healthy foods. What is the reality for someone that receives SNAP, how likely are they to be able to fill up that cart with healthy food and have that food last them through the month?

Sarah: Well, it's a great question. And prior to this update, you know, there was all kinds of research pointing to the fact that it was actually really hard. You might even say it was impossible. We had research showing that, you know, families would run out of benefits at the end of the month. You had research showing that the helpfulness or the quality of somebody's diet would go down as their SNAP benefits decreased.

So, it's hard enough as is for any of us to eat healthfully, and more than 80% of us are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, right? So that is the vast majority, regardless of your income, who you are, where you live. And so when you add cost as a constraint, you know, when you're putting those items in your shopping cart, I mean, it's an uphill battle. So, having that extra, you know, that bump in your benefits, it's a really big deal and it makes a difference.

Colleen: So, who says what a healthy diet is?

Sarah: Actually, the federal government does. And for the most part, most of the time, they get it right. So every five years since 1980, the federal government has worked with the Scientific Committee of Experts to develop what's called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which we've also done some work on. Most folks probably remember that the Dietary Guidelines gave us the Food Pyramid, which later evolved into MyPlate. But it's a lot more than that.

It's actually a really comprehensive review of current science that gives us all kinds of recommendations on what types of foods make up a healthy diet, and what types are right for people at different ages and different life stages. So, a quick important side note here of the latest edition of the guidelines that were published in 2020, we're actually the first to include guidance for infants, toddlers, and pregnant and postpartum women, which is really exciting if sort of overdue.

Colleen: So is there just one healthy diet or are there many? How do we determine what diet we should be eating?

Sarah: So there is definitely not just one way to eat a healthy diet. In particular, when you take into account people's likes and dislikes, people's food allergies, there are enormous cultural needs, preferences, variations, and also just the fact that it would be incredibly boring to eat dinner if there were just one way to do that, right? So, this is where the Thrifty Food Plan gets particularly sciency. They have a model that takes into account a bunch of different combinations of foods that could make up a healthy diet. So, the end result is sort of like an average of all these different shopping carts. Like, if you picture yourself as, like, a little person in The Sims... Did you ever play The Sims, Colleen?

Colleen: I'm sorry, I didn't.

Sarah: Well, picture yourself, you know...

Colleen: Is it like Oregon Trail?

Sarah: It's not as good as Oregon Trail. And we may get some pushback in your email inbox about that. But I will go on record and say it's not as good as Oregon Trail. But pretend you have a little, like, simulation of yourself, right? If you went shopping every week at the grocery store and just bought the foods you needed to eat, a complete healthy diet that week, even if those foods were different every single week, you could think of this model as taking sort of the average cost of all those grocery trips over the course of a year. So that's what this model is doing. It's sort of running all these different simulations over and over and over, and then kind of taking the average. So, no, we are not beholden to one single healthy diet. I think one of the big improvements of this model is that it's really trying to account for what are people actually eating?

Colleen: So why does the Thrifty Food Plan matter? I mean, how is it used?

Sarah: One of the biggest reasons that we go through this whole exercise is because the Thrifty Food Plan determines how much money folks using programs like SNAP are going to need each month to feed themselves and their families. So, you know, SNAP benefits are based on a couple of different things. So, income, for example, and the size of your family or your household. But the Thrifty Food Plan is really the foundation. And this update is a big deal because first off, this is the first update to a Thrifty Food Plan in 15 years, and the Dietary Guidelines themselves are updated every five. So, that should be your first clue that we're really overdue to revisit these calculations.

And because I know folks are wondering, yes, they do account for inflation. But there was another really important change that happened with this revision. And remember that word realistic that I mentioned earlier, that comes into play here. Because it used to be the case that after adjusting for inflation, each new version of the Thrifty Food Plan couldn't be more expensive than the one that came before it, all the way back to the first version of it in 1975. So the cost was capped, which is sort of outrageous if you think about it, right? Our country and our food system have changed a lot in the last half-century.

So let me give you an example. One of the foods that factored heavily into this original Thrifty Food Plan, right, in the 1970s was dried beans. And Colleen, don't mistake what I'm saying here. I LOVE BEANS. And if there's a transcript of this conversation, please put that in all caps. But dry beans, right, they're incredibly affordable, but they're really unrealistic for a lot of people. You know, who do you know and, in particular, who do you know who's working their tail off to raise a family and make ends meet that has hours to spend soaking and rinsing, and soaking and cooking dried beans from scratch, right?

Colleen: You've got a really good point there.

Sarah: And that's coming from I like to consider myself, like, if not the number one fan of beans, like at least top five. So, you know if I'm saying that, you know I really mean it. I think that's a valid critique. And this update also means that the Thrifty Food Plan is just gonna better reflect what's actually being eaten by all the different people and different communities and diverse populations across the U.S., right? Because the population has changed since 1975.

And I'll be honest with you, I haven't actually looked at the original model, but I feel really confident in assuming that it is skewed heavily Eurocentric. And, you know, what that means is it therefore probably, by and large, serve white people. So this is gonna be a really good thing for, you know, looking at all the different dietary needs and cultural preferences across the U.S.

Colleen: So the research that led to the Thrifty Food Plan update highlights the importance of ramping up nutrition science research. What are some areas that you'd like to see the research focus on?

Sarah: So the update to the Thrifty Food Plan is a perfect example of just the immense benefits that can come from funding nutrition research. And there are so many experts out there saying that we're just not funding enough of it, especially with the Biden U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, you know, stating that nutrition security is a real priority. And a quick side note, so the USDA defines nutrition security, essentially as when people at all times have access to healthy foods that meets their needs, right?

But you can't really talk about nutrition security without talking about these other major global challenges, things like climate change, environmental degradation, workers' rights, racial justice, right, all these things that threaten our ability to produce food and live healthy lives. So to come back to your original question, Colleen, what other areas do I think need funding? I mean, there's this huge opportunity that we're missing for research that, you know, lands right at the intersection of all these food systems issues.

We need to be using systems thinking, and research, and practice in a way that acknowledges how all these issues are related to each other, rather than treating nutrition and climate, the environment as separate problems. And our team at UCS, we recently looked at how much federal funding is actually going towards projects at the intersection of food production, climate, and environment, and nutrition, which is a field that we're calling sustainable nutrition science. And the answer is very little, just 25 cents of every $1,000 in federal research funding is going toward this field. So it's pocket change.

Colleen: So you've talked about systems thinking, and you gave a really concise example of this in one of your blog posts, and I thought we might roleplay that for our listeners. How about I be the kid and you be the expert? Sound good?

Sarah: Yeah. Okay. So, if you've ever spent time with a two-year-old, you already know a little bit about what systems thinking is. I might say something like, "Our food systems are not sustainable." And then the two-year-old says...

Colleen: "Why?"

Sarah: Because too many people are already sick because of the food we produce or the food we don't produce and how we produce it. And this will get a lot worse if we don't do some things differently.

Colleen: Why?

Sarah: Because we might not have enough clean water, healthy soil, and land to produce food anymore, and the people who will suffer the most might not be heard by people with power.

Colleen: Why?

Sarah: Okay. So you get it, right? You know, and this exchange is an oversimplification. But, you know, Colleen, as the toddler here is really onto something because if you keep asking why, you're ultimately gonna get at that root cause of the problem. And that, in turn, allows you to pinpoint the best long-term solutions and levers for change. And really, the most useful thing about systems thinking, I think, is that it can help you connect problems, like diet-related disease and climate change, for example, that might share common contributing factors, such as policies that prioritize corporate interests over the public good. And this is incredibly useful for an entity like the federal government that has finite resources and an interest in maximizing its return on investment, right? Because why invest in a solution that could solve one problem when you can invest in a solution that can solve two?

Colleen: So, how can this be used to come up with practical real-life solutions?

Sarah: I think there are really two primary ways here that we can help use systems thinking to support the kind of research that we need to get out these major public health challenges, right? We need more funding, first of all, and we need better coordination. And this has to happen among key federal research agencies that focus on nutrition and agriculture.

And based on our research, these numbers justify at least tripling the funding that's available for sustainable nutrition science. But in reality, it's probably gonna take more than that if we want to have any chance at getting ahead of these major public health issues like climate change and diet-related disease. And we also need more of this research funding being allocated to researchers and to institutions who represent and serve the populations who are most impacted by climate change and disease, which due to a deep history of racial, and economic, and social injustices are often people of color. And our analysis shows that that's really not where most of our research dollars are going right now. The bottom line is this, when it comes to climate and nutrition, we really don't have time to waste in improving our approach to research. We really just can't afford it.

Colleen: And are we likely to see those changes anytime soon?

Sarah: So, there are a lot of experts, and organizations, and coalitions that are forming to help advance nutrition science and to help ask for more of these changes to happen. We also see, you know, the Biden administration and Congress funding more research in agriculture and in climate change. I think the trick here, the real key that will determine whether this can be successful or not, is whether we can make a compelling argument to show that by employing systems thinking, we can be solving multiple problems at once.

You know, that this research funding can't just go to agriculture, can't just go to nutrition. That we really have to start thinking of these different social issues as intricately and inextricably linked, so that we're not dedicating money to one thing, which is, you know, in turn, exacerbating another thing that we have to dedicate additional research funding to. So, I think that's the real key here. There's momentum, there's interest in getting these funding levels up, but we really have to drive that message home that it has to be systems-oriented or we're gonna be facing an uphill battle.

Colleen: That makes a lot of sense. I’m thinking earlier, when you mentioned the substantial research project that resulted in the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Did the creation of those guidelines take a systems approach?

Sarah: Yes and no, Colleen. There’s a panel of scientific experts who are in charge of reviewing current evidence and making recommendations about what should be in the Dietary Guidelines. And that panel did recommend that the government take the long-term sustainability into account. You know they recognize that the best nutrition advice isn’t good enough if we’re compromising the climate, soil, and water that we need to meet our future food needs. Unfortunately, the previous administration had not asked them to make recommendations about sustainability and consequently ignored those recommendations. But it’s not too late. The Biden administration can still seek to implement the dietary guidelines in ways that align with sustainability goals. And this administration is also due, in the next year or two, to set up a new expert panel to work on the 2025-2030 dietary guidelines. And when they do that they should be really explicit with those experts that the task is to take a systems approach. And if they do that it could make an enormous impact because as we know the Dietary Guidelines influence food purchases at schools, hospitals, and other institutions with a lot of buying power.

Colleen: So, is there a role for the individual to play in helping us get to a systems thinking model?

Sarah: Absolutely. We say this all the time, but people should be involved in the policy process. And so I think that's a really important place for the average person to be able to use their voice, to use their political power, you know, get in touch with one of the organizations that's working on nutrition and health. It can be UCS. It can be any other organization. But there are a lot of folks, a lot of voices in the room right now that are asking for these changes. And so, connecting with those organizations, you know, finding those ways where you can find your path to be able to have input in some of these legislative and policy decisions. You know, we all have to be doing it. It has to be coming from all of us.

Colleen: Great. Well, Sarah, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.

Sarah: Thank you for having me, Colleen.

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