Statistics on Federal Food Programs

From enrollment in federal programs to food insecurity, reference the latest statistics and sources on hunger in the U.S.


Hunger is the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food. In the United States, hunger refers to the recurrent and involuntary lack of access to sufficient food due to poverty or constrained resources, which can lead to malnutrition over time. Hunger is understood – and defined – differently by different people to refer to conditions across a broad range of severity, from rather mild food insecurity to prolonged clinical under-nutrition. In nations where famine is widespread, hunger manifests itself as severe and visible clinical malnutrition. In the U.S., hunger generally takes a less severe form.

Food Insecurity

Food Insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain access to nutritious, safe foods necessary to lead a healthy lifestyle; households that experience food insecurity have reduced quality or variety of meals and may have irregular food intake. Food insecurity is caused by lack of money or resources to get food. While starvation seldom occurs in this country, children and adults do go hungry and chronic mild malnutrition often occurs when financial resources are low. The mental and physical changes that accompany inadequate food intakes can have harmful effects on learning, development, productivity, physical and psychological health and family life.

Does USDA Measure Hunger?

USDA does not have a measure of hunger – or the number of hungry people. Prior to 2006, USDA described households with very low food security as “food insecure with hunger” and characterized them as households in which one or more people were hungry at times during the year because they could not afford enough food.

In 2006, USDA introduced the new description “very low food security” to replace “food insecurity with hunger,” recognizing more explicitly that, although hunger is related to food insecurity, it is a different phenomenon. According to USDA, food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food, while hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity. USDA’s measurement of food insecurity, then, provides some information about the economic and social contexts that may lead to hunger but does not assess the extent to which hunger actually exists.

Anti-hunger advocates say the new words sugarcoat a national shame. “The proposal to remove the word ‘hunger’ from our official reports is a huge disservice to the millions of Americans who struggle daily to feed themselves and their families,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an anti-hunger advocacy group. “We . . . cannot hide the reality of hunger among our citizens.”

In the U.S. in 2013:

lived in food-insecure households.

The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably among household types. Rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average (14.3 percent) for the following groups:


Federal Food Programs as a Response to Hunger

About one in four Americans participates in at least one of the fifteen USDA domestic food and nutrition assistance programs that provide a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults.


Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

  • SNAP is the largest and most important cornerstone of the USDA’s food and nutrition assistance programs, accounting for 73 percent of all federal food and nutrition spending in 2012.
  • SNAP issues monthly electronic benefits that can be used like cash to purchase non-prepared food at authorized retail food stores, providing nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families.
  • In an average month in 2013, 47.6 million people, or approximately one in seven Americans participated in SNAP.
  • Half of SNAP participants entering the program are enrolled for 10 months or less.
  • 83 percent of all SNAP benefits go to households with children, elderly persons or persons with disabilities.
  • The average monthly benefit per household in 2012 was $278.
  • Researchers estimate that half of all American children will receive SNAP at some point during childhood, and half of all adults will receive SNAP at some point between the ages of 20 and 65.
  • Three in ten people eligible for SNAP do not participate in the program.

Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

  • WIC offers nutrition education, breastfeeding support, referrals and a variety of nutritious foods to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding or postpartum women, infants and children up to age five to promote and support good health.
  • An average of about 8.6 million people per month participated in the WIC program in 2013.
  • In 2012, over half (53 percent) of participants were children, 23 percent were infants, and 24 percent were women.
  • Monthly food costs per person averaged $45.10.

Child Nutrition Programs

  • In 2013, an average of 30.7 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program each school day.
  • An average of 13.2 million children participated each school day in the School Breakfast Program in 2013.
  • In 2013, a total of 1.9 billion meals were served as part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
  • In the summer of 2012, 2.3 million children participated in the Summer Food Service Program, eating a total of 142.8 million meals at 38,000 summer feeding sites.

Updated 9/2014