The Math of Thanksgiving on Food Stamps

New cuts to SNAP benefits will make Turkey Day even harder than usual for low-income Americans.

A worker opens boxes of turkeys that were supplied by the San Francisco Food Bank and distributed by volunteers at a neighborhood food pantry Nov. 20, 2007, in San Francisco.
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At the start of November, cuts to food stamp benefits kicked in, just in time to coincide with the nation's most food-centric holiday. And for families on food stamps, the meal will be even tougher to buy than in 2012, with a typical Thanksgiving meal costing far more than what their benefits would allow them to spend.

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Monthly benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for one person total $189, or around $2.10 per meal. Meanwhile, cooking a typical Thanksgiving meal for 10 people will cost $49.04 this year, according to figures recently released from the Farm Bureau Federation, or $4.90 per person.

The disparity grows as family size increases. For a family of four, monthly benefits are around $632, equaling about $1.76 per person per meal, or a little more than one-third of what the typical Thanksgiving meal might cost. For a family of 10, it's $1.58, less than one-third of a typical meal.

These families are having a tougher time buying food than just a month ago. Additional SNAP benefits provided by the 2009 stimulus bill expired Nov. 1, meaning a cut of $36 per month for a family of four.

Because of those benefit totals and the cuts, cooking a Thanksgiving meal for an extended family could be out of the question for families that depend on food stamps.

"The food stamp cuts could not come at a worse time," says Michael Altfest, communications manager at the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, Calif. "November is our busiest month."

He says his food bank's Emergency Food Helpline receives an average of 3,566 calls each November, several hundred more than the average in April, one of its busiest nonholiday months, when there are an average of 3,197 calls.

November is a busy month at a food bank in part because parents want to provide holidays for their children, says Margarette Purvis, CEO of the Food Bank for New York City. But the simple fact of colder weather also means an increased need for food in November.

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"The cost to heat your home goes up," Purvis says. "It's really not that, 'Oh my gosh, I'm really hungry.' It is worse because of the cost to heat homes in older buildings and things of that nature. That's really why a lot of families feel the squeeze."

Compounding those issues, Thanksgiving comes near the end of the month, when benefits can start to wear thin.

Purvis says she has heard people in the grocery industry refer to the end of the month as the "terrible twos" – a reference to the fact that dates starting with the number two can also see a drop-off in sales as food stamp recipients curtail their shopping.

For all these reasons, Purvis has strong feelings about the recent SNAP cuts.

"I say the definition of cruelty is to have cut the program in November," she says.

Of course, one might argue that the cuts had to come sooner or later. The additional benefits were meant to deal with a population in need during a deep recession, meaning that as the economy recovers, the benefit totals would decline sometime. However, Purvis believes the reduction should come later – perhaps even years later – when the need for them is less dire. She points to the 47.7 million Americans on the program in fiscal year 2013. That's 1 million more than in fiscal year 2012 and more than twice as many as a decade ago.

However, many Republicans in Congress would like to see the program cut further. The most recent cut to the program amounted to $5 billion, and the House version of the new farm bill would cut the program by an additional $40 billion over 10 years. The Senate version would also make cuts of around $4 billion. Those who aim to cut the program argue that they are trying to preserve the benefits only for families that truly need the money by imposing new restrictions on things like how large of assets a household can have while still receiving aid.

[MORE: House Looks to Cut $40 Billion From Food Stamps]

Though the latest cuts may be painful to some households, a family could spend considerably less than $49 on a Thanksgiving meal. Just as many people spend far more than that on free-range birds and chestnut stuffing, coupon-clipping and bargain-hunting could bring the price down. Or families may have to cut out the highest-price item: The turkey alone will cost $21 on average, according to Farm Bureau figures. Purvis calls turkeys a "luxury item" and says some food banks have decided not to stock them this year.