As described in Chapter 4, a series of recent papers from the Economic Research Service has documented substantive regional differences in food prices (Gregory and Coleman-Jensen, 2012; Leibtag, 2007; Todd et al., 2011). Leibtag (2007) shows that, based on Nielsen Homescan data, food prices in the West and Northeast are above average, while those in the South and Midwest are below average, meaning that the SNAP dollar can go further in the South and Midwest than in the West and Northeast. Although low-income consumers adopt coping mechanisms to stretch the SNAP dollar, Leibtag (2007) finds that differences in prices across regions exceed differences in prices paid across demographic (income) groups. Todd and colleagues (2011) provide corroborative evidence that geographic price variation in healthy compared with unhealthy foods may help explain geographic differences in health outcomes. Indeed, Gregory and Coleman-Jensen (2012), using local prices from the Quarterly at Home Food Survey merged with Current Population Survey (CPS) data on food insecurity, find that this regional price variation affects food insecurity—a one standard deviation increase in the cost of a TFP-type basket of goods results in an 8.4 percent increase in adult food insecurity and a 15.9 percent increase in child food insecurity (see Chapter 4).
The committee considered evidence from Children’s HealthWatch because these studies assessed the influence of regional price variations on the purchasing power of SNAP benefits. These studies included a series conducted in Boston and Philadelphia in 2008 and 2011 that examined local costs of purchasing foods consistent with the assumptions of the TFP based on the maximum SNAP benefit (Breen et al., 2011; Thayer et al., 2008). For these studies, the authors assembled grocery lists comprising 107 items from the TFP to feed a two-adult, two-child family (the SNAP reference family). In the 2008 study, four neighborhoods in each city were selected, and within each neighborhood, four stores were selected (two small, one medium, one large). The authors found that families receiving the maximum SNAP benefit needed to spend an additional $2,520 in Boston and $3,165 in Philadelphia per year to purchase foods that meet the TFP guidelines, or roughly 40 to 50 percent more than the maximum annual benefit amount of $6,504 for a four-person family in fiscal year (FY) 2008. This deficit, while varying in magnitude, was present across all four store sizes. The authors also found that 16 and 38 percent of the 107 items were unavailable in the Boston and Philadelphia stores, respectively. In a 2011 follow-up study in Philadelphia, the deficit was lower, but a still substantial $2,352 per year. Although this evidence is limited, the committee did not find additional evidence to support a converse perspective.