Follow policy victories and programs that address hunger in the U.S. and see how community-based and national groups are advocating for solutions.
Persistent food insecurity and hunger are connected to poor access to fresh and healthy foods in low-income communities, and the spread of highly processed food and a fast-food culture. Rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes are signs that a population can be well-fed yet poorly nourished. These problems, in turn, are linked to the worst family farm crisis since the 1980s, loss of farmland and an industrial food system that is driving farmers off the land. Anti-hunger organizations are increasingly collaborating with community food security advocates and other allies to promote healthy food, farms and communities through new federal policy.
Federal Food and Nutrition Programs
Federal food programs serve as the primary instruments for addressing hunger in the U.S. by providing millions of low-income individuals and families with resources to buy the food they need and obtain direct meal service and/or supplementary food. The following is a sampling of policy initiatives related to several key federal food programs. For more details on these and other federal food programs, see theFederal Food Programs Backgrounder, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, and the Food Resource and Action Center.
SNAP (Food Stamps)
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) provides a basic safety net to millions of people. The program provides monthly cash benefits to eligible low-income families to purchase nutritious food. SNAP benefits are now provided through an electronic benefit transfer system (EBT). SNAP could help even more people through the following policy initiatives:
- expansion of SNAP eligibility
- basing monthly SNAP benefits on a realistic measure of the costs of food for an adequate diet
- simplification of SNAP applications
- allowing low-income families to participate in SNAP without forfeiting the opportunity to save
- connection of SNAP (and other federal nutrition programs) to locally-based food supplies to increase food security and resilience to natural disasters, climate change and food shortages
- implementation of universal acceptance of EBT payments at farmers markets.
National School Meal Programs
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is the largest federal child nutrition program, providing nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31.6 million children each school day. The NSLP is an entitlement program, meaning that all eligible schools may participate in the program and all children attending those schools may participate. Schools receive cash subsidies and donated commodity foods from the USDA for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal nutritional requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children.
About 90 percent of schools that serve lunch also serve breakfast. The School Breakfast Program operates in the same way as the NSLP. Currently, 12.9 million children participate in the program on a typical day.
Other federal school meal and child nutrition programs include the Summer Food Service Program, the after school snacks program, the Special Milk Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the wellness policy mandate. Many of these programs were expanded with the passage of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-265).
The School Meals and Child Nutrition Programs could help even more low-income children through the following policy initiatives:
- institution of universal school meals – a nutritious meal provided to every child in school, free of charge – often through school breakfast programs
- expansion of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to all states
- education of opportunities for purchasing fresh, local, unprocessed foods for school feeding programs
- adopting stronger nutritional standards for school lunch and breakfast programs
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – better known as the WIC Program – safeguards the health of low-income women, infants and children up to age five by providing coupons for nutritious foods, information on healthy eating and referrals to health care. Unlike the programs above, WIC is not an entitlement program, which means that there is not sufficient funding for every eligible individual to participate. Instead, it is a federal grant program for which Congress authorizes a specific amount of funding each year. In 2007, USDA passed regulations revising the list of foods available with WIC coupons based on federal dietary guidelines, current nutritional science and cultural preferences. The changes would add fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, corn tortillas, whole grains, soymilk and tofu, low-fat milk and whole grain cereals. The WIC program could safeguard the health of many more mothers and children with the following policy changes:
- development of WIC as an entitlement program, providing enough funding to enable all eligible people to participate
- expansion of access to WIC so that more eligible women and children can benefit
WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs
Eligible WIC participants are issued Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) coupons in addition to their regular WIC coupons. These coupons can be used to buy fresh, unprocessed fruits, vegetables and herbs from farmers, farmers’ markets or roadside stands. The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides the same benefit for low-income seniors.
The following changes in policy on FMNP would help to improve the diets of low income mothers, children, and seniors:
- expansion of the programs to all 50 states
- increase benefit levels
- increase funding for nutrition education and local promotion of the program to vulnerable populations
Food and Farm Bill
Almost all federal food and farm legislation is part of the Food and Farm Bill, an important – and often controversial – bill that is renewed approximately every four years. The bill, which was last rewritten in February 2014, establishes programs and policies related to food assistance and nutrition programs, conservation, farming, rural development, agricultural markets, regional food infrastructure, and research. The Food and Farm Bill process is one of the most important opportunities to integrate farm and food policy to develop strong food systems.
National food policy must be constantly monitored because there is often intense political pressure to cut funding or change eligibility for programs, especially those that benefit low-income communities. Advocacy on food programs is essential, and it takes three basic forms: defending food programs and opposing program cuts; expanding and improving programs; and developing innovative new initiatives. Advocacy groups work at the federal, state and local levels on anti-hunger and anti-poverty initiatives and to protect, strengthen and expand the federal food programs.
On the national level, groups like the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and RESULTS collect and distribute information on current legislation and advocacy activities. For up-to-date news on the latest initiatives affecting federal food programs and how you can make your voice heard, visit the FRAC Legislative Action Center.
At the community level, many emergency food providers are strong anti-hunger and food security advocates. Soup kitchens and food pantries can help to connect their clients to government food programs. A growing number of emergency food providers around the country are also moving beyond emergency feeding to help their constituencies become self-reliant and to build community economic development. Groups such as the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and the Oregon Food Bank are leaders in anti-hunger and food security advocacy. WhyHunger’s publications Beyond Bread, Building the Bridge and Serving up Justice are tools for organizations working to increase food security and self-reliance in their communities.
Additionally, state and local anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations — often through a broad base of members ready to call or write their legislators — can be powerful voices advocating for expansion of federal food programs, as well as for anti-poverty measures such as increasing the minimum wage. Initiatives to alleviate poverty help to fight hunger as well, since increasing people’s economic resources allows them more access to nutritious food.