Food Gatherers collected and distributed more than 100,000 meals across their region of southeast Michigan in 2017. The Ann Arbor-based food bank reaches out to people nearly half a million times each  year, distributing fresh meats and produce, both directly and through its network of 150 different third-party organizations that feed tens of thousands of people.

Compared to SNAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it's a drop in the bucket of hungry.

According to Eileen Spring, CEO of Food Gatherers, even with all of their efforts her group still only serves about one meal for every 12 that SNAP does. Private charities like Food Gatherers play an essential role in fighting hunger, but their work depends heavily on local resources.

By contrast, the federally run SNAP program helps to feed approximately 42 million Americans. But according to a report issued by the Urban Institute, this still falls far short of what Americans actually need. Per the study:

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aims to reduce hunger and food insecurity… We find that the average cost of a low-income meal is $2.36, 27% higher than the SNAP maximum benefit per meal of $1.86, which takes into account the maximum benefit available to households of varying sizes. The SNAP per meal benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99% of U.S. continental counties and the District of Columbia.

The authors, led by Senior Fellow Elaine Waxman surveyed the degree to which SNAP actually meets the food needs of Americans on a county-by-county basis nationwide, comparing the benefits paid out by this program against how much it costs to buy a low-cost meal. The program effectively meets people's needs in less than 1% of American counties. In every other town and city across the country, SNAP benefits fall short.

There are a few takeaways here. First, it's important to remember that this issue is regional. 

The government sets SNAP benefits nationally based on household size and income-based assessment. In 2018, a two-person household could receive a maximum of $352, and averaged $252 in benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The result is a program whose utility ranges based on local costs of living. In communities like Val Verde, Texas, SNAP vouchers cover the cost of an average minimal meal, with pennies left to spare. In more expensive places like New York city, the average $1.86 per meal that SNAP distributes covers less than half the cost of getting something to eat.

See our gallery of the 20 counties in the U.S. where the gap is the biggest and a low-income meal costs the most.

Blanket programs run into this problem all the time. When the government sets a national standard, it's very hard not to create a median value on which someone might starve in San Francisco yet live comfortably in North Dakota.

Second, the Urban Institute weighed its data against a minimum standard.

Waxman's team didn't look for what someone needs to enjoy their life. The data account for the minimum: the food that people can afford near or below the poverty line.

America's food voucher program doesn't just fall short of providing families with what they need to cook a loved one something nice after a hard day or dote upon a child with a birthday cake. That would, could and arguably should be the goal of any social welfare program, as it is well within reach for our country to give every family some dignity and a little bit of happiness.

But as of right now, SNAP gives a family less per meal than the cost of a cup of doughnut-shop coffee.

Finally, these are often the working poor.

Spring emphasized that many of the people her group sees come from the working or recently poor, families that struggle to make ends meet even if they aren't unemployed or officially considered impoverished.

"They're looking at all their expenses each month and oftentimes food starts to become what gets cut from their budget to help cover the costs for other items," said Markell Miller, Director of Community Food Programs with Food Gatherers, who emphasized housing as a particular concern. "Families or individuals will then turn to the network of food pantries to supplement their groceries."

As well-paying jobs have become increasingly hard to come by in many parts of the country, this kind of government assistance has become increasingly critical even to fully employed families. Some research suggests that a full quarter of all employees in industries such as service, retail and hospitality still get help paying for their groceries.

"A family of two with a kid in daycare and another kid in school, if they're being paid minimum wage, would need to work the equivalent of three full time jobs in order to make enough to pay for housing, food and transportation," Spring said of her own operating area of Washtenaw County. "A lot of the folks we're serving are working they're just not making enough money. They may be at 30 hours a week so they're not getting health care benefits."

"This is how they string things together."

It's not yet enough.

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