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Prevalence of food insecurity varies across the country

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

USDA monitors the extent of food insecurity in U.S. households at the national and State levels. Food-insecure households are defined as those that had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of their members due to a lack of resources. Food insecurity rates vary across States because of differing characteristics of the population, State-level policies, and economic conditions. The estimated prevalence of food insecurity during 2015-17 ranged from 7.4 percent of the population in Hawaii to 17.9 percent in New Mexico. Data for 2015-17 were combined to provide more reliable State statistics than 1 year alone would provide. In 11 States, the prevalence of food insecurity was higher than the 2015-17 national average of 12.3 percent, and in 15 States, it was lower than the national average. In the remaining 24 States and the District of Columbia, differences from the national average were not statistically significant. This map appears in ERS’s Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

How labor markets are defined matters when gauging SNAP participants’ response to economic conditions

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A recent ERS study examined the responsiveness of participants in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to changes in local labor market conditions. The researchers used SNAP administrative records from Oregon to estimate the likelihood of nondisabled, or able-bodied, working-age people leaving SNAP as local labor market conditions improve. Favorable labor market conditions were more likely to lead to SNAP exits when labor market areas were defined as commuting zones, a definition that explicitly tries to capture areas where people live and work. In Oregon commuting zones, a 10-percent increase in the number of people employed was estimated to raise the likelihood that the average able-bodied, working-age (ages 25-59) SNAP participant left the program within a year by 8.7 percent, and a 10-percent increase in local new hires was estimated to raise the likelihood of leaving SNAP by 1.5 percent. Defining the local labor market area to coincide with Oregon counties, rather than commuting zones, resulted in smaller—but still positive—estimated effects. This chart appears in “Local Labor Market Conditions Impact Participation in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” in ERS’s Amber Waves magazine, September 2018.

Prevalence of food insecurity varied by household characteristics in 2017

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

While the majority of U.S. households are food secure, a minority experience food insecurity at times during the year, meaning their access to adequate food for active, healthy living is limited by a lack of money or other resources. Some households experience very low food security, a more severe range of food insecurity, where the food intake of one or more household members is reduced and normal eating patterns are disrupted. Food insecurity includes both very low food security and low food security. In 2017, 11.8 percent of all U.S households were food insecure. The prevalence of food insecurity was substantially higher for low-income households; 36.8 percent of households with incomes below the Federal poverty line were food insecure. Among all U.S. households, food insecurity rates were the highest for single-mother households (30.3 percent) and lowest for multiple-adult households with no children (7.7 percent). A version of this chart appears in the ERS report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2017, September 2018.

Districts with high-poverty schools generally make greater use of USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision for school meals

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows eligible schools in high-poverty areas to offer free USDA school meals to all students. Eligibility to use CEP is based on the share of students participating in specified income-based assistance programs—known as the Identified Student Percentage (ISP). Schools are eligible to use CEP if the ISP for the school, group of schools, or district is at least 40 percent. ERS researchers used administrative data from USDA and States for the 2015-16 school year to group eligible school districts into categories based on the highest school-level ISP in the district. The researchers found that more than half of districts with schools in ISP ranges between 61 and 90 percent used CEP in at least one of their schools. Under CEP, USDA reimburses schools at the higher free-meal rates for a portion of the meals served, and the remaining meals are reimbursed at the lower paid-meal rates. At ISP levels above 62.5 percent, all meals are reimbursed at the free rates. This reimbursement schedule likely contributes to districts with schools with higher needs making greater use of CEP. However, districts that have schools with ISP levels of 91-100 percent had a lower CEP adoption rate. Some districts may have felt less need to adopt CEP because so many children’s eligibility for free meals was already established through participation in other programs. This chart appears in “High-Poverty Schools Are More Likely To Adopt the Community Eligibility Provision of the USDA School Meal Programs” in the September 2018 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Forty-four States allowed households to apply online for SNAP benefits in 2016

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest of USDA’s 15 food and nutrition assistance programs, providing monthly benefits for purchasing food to those who apply for the program and meet the income and other eligibility criteria. In fiscal 2017, 42.1 million Americans were enrolled in the program during an average month. ERS’s SNAP Policy Database provides information on policies in the 50 States and the District of Columbia that may affect SNAP participation. For example, online applications allow individuals to complete and submit an application for SNAP benefits over the Internet. Applicants then undergo an interview at the SNAP office or over the phone to complete the application process. Online applications first became available in January 2002 and were offered in 44 States by December 2016. Although not all SNAP applicants use the online option, a high percentage of the SNAP caseload resides in States where it is available. The 44 States that provided online applications accounted for 93 percent of the national SNAP caseload in 2016. The monthly State-level information contained in the database can facilitate research on factors that may have an effect on SNAP participation and the program’s impacts. The information for this chart can be found in ERS’s SNAP Policy Database.

Percent of residents participating in SNAP varies across States

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—USDA’s largest food assistance program—provided assistance to 42 million low-income individuals in the United States in 2017. These individuals accounted for 12.9 percent of the U.S. population, down from 13.7 percent in 2016. The share of Americans participating in SNAP has declined each year since 15.1 percent participated in 2013. In 2017, the State shares of residents receiving SNAP benefits ranged from 22.1 percent in New Mexico to 5.7 percent in Wyoming. Differences in the State shares reflect differences in economic conditions, need, and program policies. Among seven FNS-defined regions nationwide, in 2017, the Southeast region had the highest average share of residents receiving SNAP benefits at 15.1 percent, and the Mountain Plains region had the lowest average share of residents receiving SNAP at 9.6 percent. This chart appears in “Participation in SNAP Varies Across States But Is Generally Decreasing” in the September 2018 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Eligible schools can offer free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of USDA’s National School Lunch Program allows eligible schools in high poverty areas to offer USDA school meals at no charge to all students. CEP reduces the administrative burden associated with collecting paper applications and meal payments from students. Eligibility to use CEP is based on the share of students participating in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other specific income-based assistance programs—known as the Identified Student Percentage (ISP). Schools are eligible to use CEP if the ISP for the school, group of schools, or district is at least 40 percent. USDA reimburses schools for meals according to a formula based on the ISP. Following a 3-year phase-in during which CEP was only available in a limited number of States, the provision was offered to all eligible school districts in the 2014-15 school year. Thirty-two percent of eligible districts used CEP in at least one of their schools in 2014-15, 37 percent in 2015-16, and 47 percent in 2016-17. A recent ERS study found that use of CEP was generally higher for poorer districts, districts in States that were part of the phase-in period, and schools in the Southeast. The data for this chart are from the ERS report, Characteristics of School Districts Offering Free School Meals to All Students Through the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program, released on August 28, 2018.

Prices of reduced-fat milk in WIC transactions vary by store type

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides benefits for specific types and quantities of foods to low-income pregnant, post-partum, and breastfeeding women; infants; and children up to age 5. Many State WIC agencies authorize a variety of large and small stores to redeem WIC benefits, in part to ensure geographic access for WIC participants. A recent ERS study examined prices paid in WIC transactions in four States for reduced-fat milk, one of the most widely redeemed foods in the program. Findings from the two States with substantial numbers of both small and large WIC-authorized stores show that reduced-fat milk WIC prices varied substantially across store types in counter intuitive ways. After controlling for store size and rurality, chain supermarkets/grocery stores in both States had significantly lower reduced-fat milk prices than supercenters (e.g., Target or Walmart; 35 to 79 cents per gallon lower) which are often known for low prices. While small and nontraditional food stores tended to have higher prices for reduced-fat milk, reduced-fat milk prices were lower in WIC-authorized pharmacies and discount stores in the Midwest State. Reduced-fat milk prices at small and nontraditional food stores versus supercenters ranged widely from 23 cents less to 63 cents more. The data for this chart are from the ERS report Price Variability Across Food Product and Vendor Type in Food Benefit Redemptions under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC), released July 31, 2018.

Participation in USDA’s Summer Food Service Program varies across States

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

When school is not in session, USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) provides free meals and snacks to children and teens at approved sites such as schools, churches, parks, community centers, and day camp programs. SFSP meals must meet Federal nutrition guidelines and are served in areas with high concentrations of low-income children. In July 2016, the percent of a State’s total population participating in SFSP ranged from 0.2 percent in Arizona to 2.1 percent in New York. That same year, 4.2 percent of the District of Columbia’s population participated in the program. Demographic factors help explain differences in program participation as a percentage of total population; higher SFSP participation rates could reflect a higher proportion of school-age children relative to total population or a higher number of low-income children relative to the overall school-age population. Differences in availability and accessibility of SFSP sites also play an important role in the variability across States. Many low-income children also obtain free meals while school is out through the Seamless Summer Option of the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, not included in this map. This chart appears in the ERS topic page Summer Food Service Program, updated June 19, 2018.

Nutrition scores for Americans’ food acquisitions vary by source

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Using data from USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), ERS researchers calculated nutrition scores for foods purchased or acquired for free by three groups: participants in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), low-income non-SNAP households, and higher income non-SNAP households. For the scores, the researchers used the Healthy Eating Index-2010, which is a measure of dietary quality that assesses conformance to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Scores run from 0 to 100 and summarize how well the week’s foods compare to Federal dietary recommendations—a higher score reflects a healthier diet. Foods acquired at large grocery stores were more nutritious than foods from smaller stores or from restaurants and other eating places. However, grocery store purchases by SNAP households scored 4 and 8 points below purchases by low-income and higher income non-SNAP households, respectively. For SNAP households, school food rivaled large grocery stores for nutritional quality. This is likely because meals served as part of USDA’s school lunch and breakfast programs must meet Federal nutrition standards. SNAP participants are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals and likely rely more on these meals and less on snacks and other items sold in schools that are not required to meet the same nutrition standards as USDA school meals. A version of this chart appears in the February 2018 Amber Waves article, "Supermarkets, Schools, and Social Gatherings: Where Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Other U.S. Households Acquire Their Foods Correlates With Nutritional Quality."

Economic conditions and program policy help drive average SNAP benefit levels

Thursday, May 3, 2018

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides low-income households with monthly benefits to supplement their resources for purchasing food. Benefit amounts increase with household size and decrease with household income. Between 1980 and 2017, average monthly benefits grew from $34 per person to $126 per person. Much of this increase reflects the fact that SNAP benefit levels are updated annually for food price inflation so that their purchasing power does not erode. However, even when benefits are adjusted for inflation, average per person benefits rise and fall as characteristics of SNAP households, such as income, change in response to economic conditions and policy changes. Measured in 2017 dollars to adjust for inflation, average monthly SNAP benefits increased from $99 per person in 1980 to $119 in 2008. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided all recipients with increased SNAP benefits, and average inflation-adjusted SNAP benefits jumped to $143 per person in that year, climbed to $152 in 2010, and then began falling as the ARRA increase was phased out and economic conditions improved. Inflation-adjusted and nominal benefit amounts have been similar in the past few years, as food price increases have been small. This chart appears in ERS’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) topic page.

Number of stores authorized to accept SNAP benefits grew by over 50 percent in the last decade

Monday, March 19, 2018

In 2016, low-income participants in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) received an average of about $126 in benefits each month to purchase eligible food items in authorized retail food stores. To become an authorized SNAP store, retailers are required to meet various criteria based in part on the types of food offered for sale. As of September 2016, over a quarter million (260,115) food retailers were authorized to redeem SNAP benefits. From 2007 to 2013, the number of SNAP-authorized stores grew by 53 percent. This increase coincided with a sharp rise in the number of SNAP participants that was largely due to the economic downturn, including the Great Recession of 2007-09, which increased demand for food assistance. Much of the growth in the number of SNAP stores was the result of more convenience stores applying for and receiving authorization to accept SNAP benefits. The number of SNAP-authorized convenience stores doubled from 2007 to 2016. By 2016, convenience stores accounted for 45 percent of all SNAP-authorized stores, but these stores accounted for just 6 percent of SNAP redemptions. This chart is from "Eligibility Requirements for SNAP Retailers: Balancing Access, Nutrition, and Integrity" in ERS’s Amber Waves magazine, January 2018.

Decline in WIC participation persists

Friday, March 16, 2018

USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides supplemental food, nutrition education, and health care referrals to low-income, nutritionally at-risk pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women as well as infants and children up to age 5. In fiscal 2017, the program served an average of 7.3 million people per month, down 21 percent from its peak in fiscal 2010. For the 7th consecutive year, participation for all three major groups fell. The number of women, infants, and children participating in WIC each fell by 5-6 percent. Improving economic conditions in recent years have likely played a role in the participation decline. Since applicants must have incomes at or below 185 percent of poverty or participate in certain other assistance programs to be eligible, the number of people eligible for WIC is closely linked to the health of the U.S. economy. Falling WIC caseloads may also reflect the decline in the number of U.S. births. Since 2007, the number of births have fallen each year except in 2014. This chart appears in the ERS report, The Food Assistance Landscape: FY 2017 Annual Report, released on March 15, 2018.

Working-age adults comprise 44 percent of SNAP participants

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In an average month in fiscal 2017, USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provided 42.1 million low-income Americans with benefits to purchase food at authorized food stores. The number of people receiving SNAP benefits has declined by 11.5 percent since the historical high of an average 47.6 million per month in fiscal 2013. In the 2016 fiscal year (the latest year for which demographic data are available), adults age 18-59 accounted for 44.1 percent of participants, children younger than age 5 accounted for 13.4 percent of participants, school-age children accounted for 30.7 percent of participants, and the elderly accounted for 11.8 percent of participants. The composition of SNAP participants, as well as the overall SNAP caseload, can be affected by both changing economic conditions and modifications to program requirements. The composition shifted after the 2007-09 recession, as more working-age adults became eligible for the program and applied for benefits. Working-age adults' share of the SNAP caseload increased from 42.1 percent in 2006 to 46.4 percent in 2013, and has declined each year since 2013. This chart is from ERS's data product, Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials.

SNAP policy index captures trends in State policies for administering SNAP

Thursday, February 15, 2018

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the Nation’s largest food assistance program. For much of the program’s history, administration of SNAP was largely uniform across States. However, welfare reform legislation in 1996 and subsequent legislative and regulatory changes have allowed States increased flexibility to administer some components of the program. ERS researchers recently developed an index that reflects how accommodative, or encouraging, State policies are to enrolling individuals in SNAP. This SNAP policy index is composed of 10 State policies related to eligibility, ease of enrolling and participating, participation stigma, and outreach to attract new participants. The index ranges between 1 and 10, with a higher number indicating more accommodative policies are in place. For the Nation as a whole, the index grew steadily from 1997 to 2014, meaning that States tended to adopt policies encouraging enrollment. Between 1997 and 2000, policies that relaxed eligibility and reduced stigma played the largest roles in the rising index. After 2000, policies that made enrolling and remaining in the program easier played a larger role. This chart appears in the ERS report, "Using a Policy Index to Capture Trends and Differences in State Administration of USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program", released on February 5, 2018.

In 2016, 81 percent of SNAP benefits were redeemed in super stores and supermarkets

Friday, February 2, 2018

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides participants with electronic benefits to purchase food in authorized retail food stores. In fiscal 2016, over $66 billion in SNAP benefits were redeemed, accounting for about 10 percent of the Nation’s spending on food at home. As of September 2016, 260,115 stores were authorized to accept SNAP. Convenience stores accounted for the largest share of SNAP stores (45 percent), but less than 6 percent of all SNAP benefits were redeemed in these smaller stores. Conversely, large super stores, which sell a wide variety of food and nonfood items, and supermarkets together accounted for only 14 percent of SNAP stores, but 81 percent of national SNAP redemptions. Super stores and supermarkets generally have a wider variety of foods and lower prices than smaller stores. Because SNAP benefits are for a fixed dollar amount, participants have an incentive to stretch their benefits by seeking out the best values when choosing where to spend their benefits. This chart appears in the ERS report, Design Issues in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Looking Ahead by Looking Back, released on January 25, 2018.

Meals at school and social gatherings make up 64 percent of free food events for SNAP households

Thursday, December 7, 2017

U.S. households obtain food from a variety of sources, including retail food stores, restaurants, schools, and work places. Some of these aquistions—such as meals at family gatherings and employer-provided meals and snack—are free to the household. Participants in USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) were asked to report each food acquisition event over the course of 7 days between April 2012 and January 2013, noting where the food was obtained and how much the household paid for each item or if the food was free. A food acquisition event can involve a single meal or snack, multiple meals, or a grocery store visit to obtain the week’s groceries. The share of free events was higher among SNAP participants (30 percent of total food acquisitions) as compared to low-income and higher-income nonparticipants (22 and 21 percent, respectively). SNAP participants reported larger shares of free events from schools and from social gatherings of family, friends, and others. Children from SNAP households are eligible to receive free meals from USDA school meals programs, which may make it easier for SNAP households to access these free meals. Further research is needed to understand the reasons for differences in free food events across groups. This chart is from "Nearly 30 Percent of the Times That SNAP Households Acquire Food, the Food Is Free" in the November 2017 issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine.

Single-parent households face higher food insecurity than married-couple households with children

Monday, November 13, 2017

In 2016, 12.3 percent of U.S. households were food insecure—they had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of money or other resources for food. While the prevalence of food insecurity has been falling since 2008, some types of households had levels of food insecurity in 2016 at or above levels prior to the 2007-09 recession. For example, food insecurity among households with children headed by a single mother was 31.6 percent in 2016, higher than this group’s 2007 rate of 30.2 percent. By the same token, the prevalence of food insecurity among single father households was 21.7 percent in 2016, well above the 17 percent prevalence in 2006. Both single mother and single father households had higher food insecurity rates than married couple households with children, reflecting the generally lower incomes of single mother and single father households. Married couple households with children and households with children under the age of 6 had 2016 food insecurity prevalence rates similar to their pre-recession levels. This chart is part of a set of interactive charts on food insecurity trends on the ERS Web site.

In the past decade, participation in USDA’s School Breakfast Program has grown by more than 5 million

Monday, November 6, 2017

USDA’s School Breakfast Program makes healthy breakfasts available to all students in participating schools, with children from low-income households receiving the meals for free or at a reduced price. The program has grown considerably in the past 11 years, with participation increasing from 9.4 million children on a typical school day in fiscal 2005 to 14.6 million in fiscal 2016, an increase of 5.2 million children daily. Most of that growth in participation has been among students qualified to receive free breakfasts. Free breakfast participation rose from 6.8 million children in fiscal 2005 to 11.5 million in fiscal 2016, an increase of 4.7 million children. In fiscal 2016, 79 percent of breakfasts served were free, 6 percent were provided at a reduced price, and 15 percent were full price. Federal spending for the program totaled $4.2 billion in fiscal 2016—an increase of 7 percent over fiscal 2015. The data for this chart are from the Child Nutrition Programs topic page on the ERS Web site, updated October 2017.

SNAP benefits play a strong role in the food budgets of participant households with children and those in deep poverty

Thursday, October 12, 2017

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to increase the food purchasing power of program participants. The program provides low-income households with monthly benefits for purchasing food from authorized food stores (referred to as “food at home”). A recent ERS study found that SNAP benefits accounted for 63 percent of the average food-at-home spending of SNAP households in 2012, with households using other resources, such as their own income or benefits from other programs, to pay for the remaining 37 percent. SNAP’s contribution to food-at-home spending was higher than the average for SNAP households with children, those with no elderly members, and those in poverty. SNAP is designed so that benefits increase with household size and decrease with income, and households with lowest incomes per household member receive higher SNAP benefits. SNAP benefits accounted for 80 percent of food-at-home spending of SNAP households with incomes below 50 percent of the Federal poverty guidelines in 2012. This chart appears in the ERS report, Food Spending Patterns of Households Participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Findings from USDA’s FoodAPS, August 2017.

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