Saturday, September 18, 2010

How USDA Food and Nutrition Service Programs Feed the Hungry

Eliminating childhood hunger by 2015 was one of President Obama’s campaign promises, and the USDA Food and Nutrition Service is working toward that, and many other, goals. We talked to Steven Carlson and Duke Storen (right) of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, Partnerships and Outreach, about the programs addressing hunger administered by the USDA. They outlined three major groups of programs:
  1. Benefits to individuals, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children).
  2. Benefits to organizations that supply prepared food to groups, such as school lunches and food in adult feeding programs, day-care programs, etc.
  3. Commodity programs that buy large amounts of food and then provide it to other programs.
In all, there are 15 different programs, each with its own reasons for existence and its own target group.

SNAP is by far the largest food assistance program, with 41.2 million people receiving benefits (June 2010), an increase of 6.4 million in just the last year.  That's more than one out of every eight people.  According to Director Storen, SNAP benefits are the most effective economic stimulus there is. Unlike tax breaks or high-income benefits, 99% of the SNAP dollars are spent within 30 days, and every $5 in SNAP benefits generates up to $9.20 in economic activity.

Yet, only 2/3 of those eligible for SNAP benefits are actually receiving benefits. The federal government pays half the states’ costs to administer the program. But just as the economy has increased the need, state budget cuts make it harder to process the increased number of eligible residents. The Food and Nitrition Service is working hard to improve participation by partnering with various non-profit organizations (e.g. food banks, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army), and government organizations (e.g. VISTA, Senior Volunteer Corps) to help with outreach and filling out enrollment forms. They also give states with low enrollment rates grants to improve their systems.

There are still large holes in the system. Besides the 1/3 of eligible residents that qualify for SNAP and don’t get them, many who get SNAP benefits are still hungry. SNAP doesn’t cover the cost of all the food a family needs, even with the 13.6% increase included in the recovery bill. Less than 20% of students who get free or reduced cost meals at school get food through the summer feeding programs, so something different needs to be available during the summer. Children are hungry over the weekends. Some children get food through a “weekend backpack” program (not funded through USDA, but through private charities). During school breaks, there’s no provision for feeding children.

The Food and Nutrition Service would love to fill these holes, but they can only do what Congress authorizes.

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