About one in four Americans participates in at least one of the 15 federal food and nutrition assistance programs. Learn how these programs provide a safety net for millions of low-income families.
About one in every four Americans participates in at least one of the 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provide a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults. Coordinated at the national level by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), a federal agency of the USDA, these nutrition assistance programs are fundamental in preventing hunger and food insecurity.
Major Nutrition Programs
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest of the USDA food and nutrition assistance programs. Formerly the Food Stamp Program, SNAP puts healthy food within reach for over 47 million Americans each month via an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card used to purchase food at most grocery stores. Through nutrition education partners, SNAP also helps clients learn to make healthy eating and active lifestyle choices. Click here for a snapshot of who is enrolled in SNAP and what is at stake in the Food and Farm Bill for SNAP recipients.
National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the second largest of USDA food and nutrition assistance programs and operates in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions. Schools that choose to take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. In 2013, the program provided lunches to an average of 30.7 million children each school day.
Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – better known as the WIC Program – serves to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, & children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating and referrals to health care. The third largest USDA nutrition program, WIC provided supplemental nutrition for 8.6 million participants in 2013.
School Breakfast Program operates in the same manner as the National School Lunch Program and is the fourth largest of USDA food and nutrition programs. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the breakfast program receive cash subsidies from the USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve breakfasts that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price breakfasts to eligible children. In 2013, an average of 13.2 million children participated in the program each school day.
Child and Adult Care Food Program plays a vital role in improving the quality of day care and making it more affordable for many low-income families. The program provides nutritious meals and snacks to children in child care and day care centers and adults who receive care in nonresidential adult day care centers. CACFP reaches even further to provide meals to children residing in homeless shelters, and snacks and suppers to youths participating in eligible afterschool care programs. The fifth largest USDA food and nutrition program, in 2013, approximately 2 billion meals were served.
School-based and Child Nutrition Programs
Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides free fresh fruits and vegetables in selected low-income elementary schools nationwide. The purpose of the program is to increase children’s fresh fruit and vegetable consumption and at the same time combat childhood obesity by improving children’s overall diet and create healthier eating habits to impact their present and future health.
Special Milk Program provides participating schools and institutions with reimbursement from the USDA for each half pint of milk served. They must operate their milk programs on a non-profit basis and agree to use the Federal reimbursement to reduce the selling price of milk to all children.
Summer Food Service Program provides free, nutritious meals and snacks to help children in low-income areas get the nutrition they need throughout the summer months when they are out of school. Sponsors, including school districts, local government agencies, camps, or private nonprofit organizations, provide free meals to a group of children at a central site, such as a school or a community center. They receive payments from USDA, through their State agencies, for the meals they serve.
Food Distribution Programs
Commodity Supplemental Food Program works to improve the health of low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, other new mothers up to one year postpartum, infants, children up to age six, and elderly people at least 60 years of age by supplementing their diets with nutritious USDA commodity foods. It provides food and administrative funds to States to supplement the diets of these groups.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans, including elderly people, by providing them with emergency food and nutrition assistance at no cost. The USDA makes commodity foods available to States. The States provide the food to local agencies that they have selected, usually food banks, which distribute the food to soup kitchens and food pantries that directly serve the public.
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations provides commodity foods to low-income households, including the elderly, living on Indian reservations, and to Native American families residing in designated areas near reservations. Many Native Americans participate in the FDPIR as an alternative to SNAP, usually because they do not have easy access to food stores. Households may not participate in both FDPIR and SNAP.
Additional Federal Programs
Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) awards cash grants to state agencies to provide WIC recipients with coupons that can be exchanged for eligible foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables at pre-approved farmers markets. Although an important program, the FMNP is currently active in less than half the states around the country. We hope to see this program expand and become available to all WIC recipients in the near future.
Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) awards grants to state agencies to provide low-income seniors with coupons that can be exchanged for eligible foods such as fresh fruits or vegetables at pre-approved farmers’ markets. Although an important program, the SFMNP is currently active in less than half the states around the country. We hope to see this program expand and become available to all seniors in the near future.
Food Distribution Disaster Assistance is part of the Federal Emergency Response Plan. FNS has the primary responsibility of supplying food to disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army for mass feeding or household distribution.
Nutrition Assistance Block Grants food assistance to low-income households in the U.S. Territories of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, in lieu of operating SNAP. With the authority granted them via the block grants, the U.S. territories establish eligibility and benefit levels for their nutrition assistance programs.