FAQs: U.S. Hunger and Federal Food Programs

Do you have questions about how federal food programs work? Who is eligible? How does SNAP prioritize healthy food? These questions and more are addressed in the frequently asked questions (FAQs).

How do I find the eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the food stamp Ppogram? 
All eligibility requirements are listed on the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) website.

How do federal food programs prioritize community food security and access to nutritious, locally grown and/or organic food?
Some Federal Food Programs allow recipients to use their benefits to purchase fresh, locally-grown food, reducing hunger and improving health in low-income communities. For instance, at a growing number of farmers markets across the U.S., shoppers are able to use electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, which function as a debit card for SNAP, to purchase fresh food directly from farmers. A growing number of community supported agriculture (CSA) projects are beginning to accept SNAP payments as well. WIC (Women, Infants & Children) and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs provide vouchers which allow low-income women, children and seniors to purchase food from farmers markets, and in some states, from CSA projects. Through farm-to-institution initiatives, the National School Lunch Program and other child nutrition programs, new incentives are emerging that give preference to local food producers while providing students with fresh, healthy food.

What is an entitlement program? What does it mean that SNAP is an entitlement program?
An entitlement program is a federally funded program that guarantees a certain level of benefits to persons or other entities who meet requirements set by law. It leaves no discretion with Congress on how much money to appropriate to the program as a whole; instead, program spending is determined by individual eligibility. As an entitlement program, SNAP allows all eligible individuals and households to receive assistance if they meet the requirements. Eligibility and benefits are based on household size, household assets and gross and net income.

What barriers do immigrants face in accessing federal food programs?
Eligibility requirements make it very difficult for immigrants to utilize Federal Food Programs. Most legal immigrants who have become permanent residents of the United States are barred from receiving SNAP during their first five years of residency. In addition, immigrants face a language barrier when dealing with customer service or completing the application. For more information visit the USDA’s Guidance of Non-Citizen Eligibility.

Why is the national participation rate for SNAP eligible families low and what is being done about this?
The low National Participation Rate for SNAP-eligible families is due to the barriers applicants face, which are listed above. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is striving to improve the National Participation Rate. USDA annually awards performance bonuses to states with the highest and most improved program access rates. In 2003, FNS formed the SNAP/Food Stamp Outreach Coalition to provide a forum for the numerous food banks, community and faith-based groups, and other organizations nationwide which educate low-income people about SNAP benefits. For more information, visit the FNS website.

Is the funding for federal food programs vulnerable to cuts by Congress and the president? Who is doing advocacy work around this issue?
Yes, the funding for Federal Food Programs is vulnerable to presidential actions and to cuts by Congress, and the impact of these cuts is felt most greatly within low-income neighborhoods. In the past, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program was cut by almost twenty-eight billion dollars over six years as part of the 1996 welfare law. The law also limited eligibility for SNAP benefits for legal immigrants and unemployed childless adults. More recently, the 2014 Food and Farm Bill included $8.6 billion in cuts to SNAP. For more on the role of Congress in federal food assistance, see Policy & Advocacy.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities are two examples of organizations that are conducting ground-breaking research on the vulnerabilities of Federal Food Programs by analyzing the programs statistics, their characteristics, and the potential outcomes of cuts made by Congress and the president.

How are victims of natural disasters able to access emergency food assistance?
After a region is declared a disaster area, the USDA helps in many ways to ensure that all those affected will receive food. Through the FNS, the USDA provides commodity foods for shelters and other mass feeding sites, distributes commodity packages directly to households in need, and issues emergency SNAP benefits. FNSs Food Distribution Division supplies disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army with emergency food. Victims of natural disasters are to contact their state agencies, which run the USDAs nutrition assistance programs during an emergency. For more information, visit the FNS disaster relief website. A victim can also call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hotline number or state number because they can direct victims towards their nearest emergency food assistance programs and shelters. For more information, visit the FEMA website.

Who can access federal food programs? Will recipients lose their benefits if they transition from welfare to work?
There is a misconception that people with jobs are not eligible for Federal Food Programs. Federal Food Programs help low-income people, many of whom are the working poor, and special vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, seniors, immigrants and disaster victims who receive food while they begin to set up their finances. As an example, SNAP benefits serve to ease individuals and families during their transition from welfare to work. Recipients will not immediately lose their SNAP benefits because the 2002 Food Stamp reauthorization law allows a state the option to provide up to five months of transitional SNAP benefits to families that leave welfare without requiring the family to reapply or submit any additional paperwork.


Updated 8/2014