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USDA Food Assistance Programs

USDA administers 15 food and nutrition assistance programs, which account for over 70 percent of USDA’s budget and reach one in four Americans at some point during the year. While the National School Lunch Program dates back to the 1940s, the other major USDA food assistance programs—including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the School Breakfast Program, and the Child and Adult Food Care Program—are legacies of the War on Poverty.  

SNAP, the largest food assistance program, is available to most needy families with limited income and assets, while the other programs are targeted toward specific segments of the low-income population. The programs grew rapidly in the years following President Johnson’s 1964 call to action. Data from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service show that food assistance expenditures increased steeply during the 2007-2009 recession and continued to rise rapidly until 2011. Today, these programs remain on the front line of America’s anti-poverty efforts.

USDA expenditures for food assistance

ERS research examines the extent to which USDA's food assistance programs reduce food insecurity and the effects of poverty by responding to changing economic conditions. A 2012 ERS study found that adding the value of SNAP benefits to family income effectively raises many families above the official poverty threshold and, to a greater extent, reduces the depth and severity of poverty. SNAP benefits had a particularly strong effect on children in poverty, protecting them from large increases in the depth and severity of poverty during the 2007-09 recession.

SNAP benefits mitigated increases in severity of child poverty

ERS research shows that poor households are more likely to be food insecure, having difficulty at some time during the year in providing enough food for active, healthy living due to a lack of money and other resources. Two recent ERS studies examine the temporary increase in SNAP benefit levels in the 2009 stimulus legislation, and the findings suggest that changes in SNAP benefit levels have a significant effect on the food security of low-income households.

A program’s effect on poverty and food insecurity is closely related to its responsiveness to economic conditions. SNAP has long been known as a countercyclical program, with SNAP participation increasing when unemployment and poverty increase. ERS researchers recently found that the other major food assistance programs also respond, to some degree, to economic fluctuations, with their use by needy families increasing during economic downturns.

The ERS Food Access Research Atlas presents a spatial overview of food access indicators for low-income and other census tracts using different measures of supermarket accessibility. It offers census-tract-level data on food access that can be downloaded for community planning or research purposes.

The ERS Food Environment Atlas assembles statistics on food environment indicators to stimulate research on the determinants of food choices and diet quality, and to provide a spatial overview of a community's ability to access healthy food and its success in doing so.

Related ERS Reports

Household Food Security in the United States in 2012, September 2013
Effects of the Decline in the Real Value of SNAP Benefits From 2009 to 2011, August 2013
Food Insecurity in Households with Children, 2010-11, May 2013
Food Assistance Landscape: FY 2012 Annual Report, March 2013
Food Insecurity Among Households with Working-Age Adults with Disabilities, January 2013
How Economic Conditions Affect Participation in Nutrition Assistance Programs, September 2012
Alleviating Poverty in the U.S.: The Critical Role of SNAP Benefits, April 2012
Food Security Improved Following the 2009 ARRA Increase in SNAP Benefits, April 2011

Related Amber Waves

USDA’s Food Assistance Programs: Legacies of the War on Poverty, Amber Waves, February 2014 (release date: Feb. 3, 2014)

Last updated: Friday, February 28, 2014

For more information contact: Laura Tiehen