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Programs that Address Hunger and Poverty in the United States

59% of food-insecure households in the 2015 survey reported that in the previous month, they had participated in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2017). The programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the relatively new name for the former food stamp program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program.

SNAP/Food stamps

  • SNAP provides nutritional support for low-wage working families, low-income seniors, and people with disabilities living on a fixed income.
  • In fiscal year (FY) 2016, about 44.2 million people living in 21.8 million U.S. households participated in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, on average, per month.
  • Two-thirds of SNAP participants were children, elderly, or had disabilities.
  • The average gross income for all SNAP households was $813 per month for FY 2016.
  • The average SNAP household received $249 in monthly benefits.
  • SNAP has had a powerful anti-poverty effect. When SNAP benefits are added to gross income, 10% of SNAP households move above the poverty line. The impact was greater for the poorest households, moving 12% of the SNAP households from below 50% of the poverty line to above 50% of the poverty line.

(Source: Lauffer, 2017)

WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children)

  • WIC provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, and referrals to health and other social services to low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, as well as infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk. WIC participants receive checks or vouchers to purchase nutritious foods each month, including infant cereal, iron-fortified adult cereal, vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter, dried and canned beans/peas, and canned fish. Other options such as fruits and vegetables, baby foods, and whole wheat bread were recently added to the list.
  • 3 million infants and children under five and 2 million women received WIC benefits monthly in 2017.
  • The cost of the program was approximately $5.6 billion in FY 2017. A participant family’s income must fall below 185% of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines (in 2018, $46,435 for a family of four). Eligibility is also granted to participants in other benefit programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Funding: WIC is a federal grant program; Congress authorizes a specific amount of funding each year for program operations.

(Source: CBPP)

National School Lunch Program

  • The National School Lunch Program is open to all children enrolled in a participating school. Approximately 95% of public schools participate. During the 2015-16 school year, 21.6 million children in more than 98,000 schools and residential childcare institutions participated in the National School Lunch Program.
  • On a typical school day, around two-thirds of the total children receive free or reduced-price lunches.
  • Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Household income determines if a child is eligible to receive free or reduced price meals, or must pay most of the cost. To receive free lunch, household income must be at or below 130% of the federal poverty level; for reduced-price lunch, income must be between 130-185% of the poverty level.
  • Reimbursable meals must meet federal nutrition standards. National School Lunch Program lunches provide one-third or more of the recommended levels for key nutrients.
  • Studies show that proper nutrition improves a child’s behavior, school performance, and overall cognitive development. A healthy eating environment teaches children good nutrition and the elements of a proper diet, which can have positive effects on children’s eating habits and physical well-being throughout life.

USDA Food Assistance for Disaster Relief

    • There are also U.S. government programs that help Americans after a disaster, such as a hurricane or flood. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) coordinates with state, local, and volunteer organizations (such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army) to: 1)Provide food for shelters and other mass feeding sites; 2) Distribute food packages directly to households in need in limited situations; 3)Issue Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) benefits.
    • Watch this video to learn more.

    (Sources: FRAC, 2018;  New America Foundation; USDA FNS: National School Lunch ProgramFood Assistance for Disaster Relief)


    Three of the principal programs that provide income and other assistance for people with low incomes are the minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Other programs, not discussed here, include Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), as well as Social Security and Medicare for older people.

    Minimum wage

    • The United States has enacted a minimum wage (as do some individual states) that tries to establish a floor for what firms can pay as a wage. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. As of January 2018, 29 states and District of Columbia have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage.
    • Nearly 9 million children in working families lived below the official poverty line (about $24,000 annually for a family of four) in 2016.
    • The minimum wage is not indexed for inflation. Thus, its value over the years has been diminished substantially, as increases in the minimum wage have not kept up with inflation.
    • The direct wage for a tipped employee is $2.13 in wages if the combined amount with the tips received equals the federal minimum wage.

    (Source: CBPP. See also: Wikipedia)

    The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

    • The EITC is the mechanism through which, by filing a tax return, low-income people and families can receive an income supplement. It reduces poverty directly by supplementing the earnings of low-wage workers and is designed to encourage and reward work.
    • The amount of EITC depends on a recipient’s income, marital status and number of children.
    • During the 2016 tax year, the average EITC was $3,176 for a family with children (boosting wages by about $265 a month), compared with $295 for a family without children.
    • In 2016, the EITC lifted about 5.8 million people out of poverty, including about 3 million children.
    • One way the EITC reduces poverty is by supplementing the earnings of minimum-wage workers. At the federal minimum wage current level, a two-parent family with two children with a full-time, minimum-wage worker can move above the poverty line only if it receives the EITC as well as SNAP benefits.

    (Source: CBPP)

    Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)

    • In 1996, TANF replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which had been in existence since 1935.
    • The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, created by the 1996 welfare law, was designed to provide a temporary safety net to low-income families. States have discretion on how to use the funds.
    • The number of TANF recipients has fallen by 60% from 1996, the last year of the Aid to Dependent Children program and the beginning of TANF, to 2014.
    • TANF benefits have lost a fifth of their value since 1996 in most states, and leave families far below the poverty line (CBPP).
    • In 2016, for every 100 families in poverty, just 23 families received TANF cash assistance.
    • In 2017, the ratio has decreased to 10 or less, for every 100 families in poverty; 10 or fewer receive TANF cash assistance.
    • This decline is due to factors such as the five-year time limitation on benefits, declining real levels of funding, some increase in the number of single parents who work, and an inability of families to meet the regulations.
    • Studies of families that stop receiving TANF assistance show that 60% of former recipients are employed—typically at poverty-level salaries between $6 and $8.50 an hour—while 40% are not employed (See CBPP TANF and  CBPP  TANF Chartbook).

    Examples of Non-Governmental Programs that Address Hunger and Poverty in the United States

    AARP and AARP Foundation

    The AARP and AARP Foundation represent a charity which fights hunger in food insecure populations. 37 million people who are 50 years old or older have come together to address hunger through community involvement addressing anti-hunger programs, enrollment of older adults for SNAP, and research and development of sustainable solutions.

    Feeding America

    Feeding America is an extensive network of more than 200 food banks nationwide, serving 37 million including children and seniors through local partnerships such as soup kitchens, food pantries, after-school programs, and emergency shelters.

    Meals on Wheels

    The Meals on Wheels Association of America is a community-based program, which provides approximately 1 million meals a day to seniors across the country, either by direct delivery to homebound seniors and adults with disabilities or congregational meals at community centers or long-term care facility centers.

    Work citation:

Hunger – In our neighborhood

Facts about poverty and hunger in America

Even in the world’s greatest food-producing nation, children and adults face poverty and hunger in every county across America. In 2017:

  • 40 million people struggle with hunger in the United States, including more than 12 million children.
  • A household that is food insecure has limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life.
  • Households with children were more likely to be food insecure than those without children
  • 58% of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the major federal food assistance program — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps); the National School Lunch Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (often called WIC)

Hunger in the United States

The estimated percentage of U.S households that were food insecure in 2016 was 12.3%. Though relatively unchanged from 12.7% in 2015, food insecurity has decreased from 14.9% in 2011. However, it is still above the estimated percentage of food insecurity of 11.1%, which existed pre-recession (2008) in U.S. households (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory, Singh, 2017).

  • In 2016, 87.7 % of U.S. households were food secure throughout the year.
  • In 2016, 12.3% of U.S. households (15.6 million households) were food insecure. Food insecure households are those where people had difficulty providing food to all members of the household due to limited resources.
  • 4.9% of U.S. households (6.1 million households) had very low food security. In households with very low food security, food intake is decreased, and normal eating patterns are disturbed for some members of the household at times during the year.
  • 8% of U.S. households with children (3.1 million households) were food insecure. These households were unable to provide adequate nutritious food for their children at some point during the year.
  • In 0.8% of households, both adults and children experienced very low food security. 298,000 households with children experienced very low food insecurity in 2016.
  • Food insecurity in households with children headed by a single parent, or households with single women or single men living alone, or households with a Black or Hispanic head of the family, or households in principal cities and non-metropolitan areas is higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty limit.
  • The prevalence of food insecurity varies from state to state, ranging from 8.7% in Hawaii to 18.7% in Mississippi in 2014-2016. Based on data from 2016, the 10 hungriest states in the U.S. are Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon, North Carolina, Maine, and Oklahoma.
  • The average food-secure households spent 29% more on food than the average food-insecure household of the same size and composition. The estimates include food purchases made with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, benefits.
  • About 59% of food-insecure households in the survey reported that in the previous month they had participated in one or more of the three largest federal nutrition assistance programs: SNAP, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and/or the National School Lunch Program.

(Source: Coleman-Jensen et al., 2017)

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Irish Famine memorial, NY
Hunger in America

Hunger in America is no longer a state of being that can be attached to stereotypical recipient. The face of hunger now includes almost every age group and demographic you could imagine.

It spans from the elderly, working families, those experiencing homelessness; chronic illness, and students of all kinds, just to name a few.

College students in particular are often subjected to conditions that predispose them to food insecurity such as low access to transportation, low access to food storage space, low access to food preparation tools, high expenses, and a low capacity to earn income. Essentially, having no car, no fridge, no kitchen, little income, and large tuition bills make eating well extremely difficult.

Colleges across the country have slowly been realizing this issue and taking steps to address it by establishing food pantries that provide students with food items that they can easily prepare with limited resources.

Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program and Southern Maine Community College have recently established one such pantry on the SMCC Midcoast Campus. This pantry is open to all SMCC students and is replenished with roughly 500 pounds of food on a weekly basis. This will amount to about 21,000 meals a year — a small step towards closing the meal gap that college students face.

In January, the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan congressional watchdog, released a report detailing the findings that not only are college students struggling to meet their own basic needs, but there are also systemic gaps in the American food distribution system that make it increasingly difficult for students to have access to affordable, nutritious food.

The recommendations from the GAO included that eligibility information about SNAP be updated in government informational materials, as many college students may be eligible for SNAP but not know it. Additionally, the GAO recommended that state nutrition offices redouble their efforts to address food insecurity amongst college populations.

Higher education has become somewhat of a necessity for young people in today.s job market, and it.s no secret that getting a degree is a pricey endeavour. Expectations that students should be able to simply get by. on ramen noodles or a can of beans a day are not only detrimental to health and educational outcomes, but also perpetuate the idea that hunger is a state that should be endured without comment. We know that students cannot perform well without proper nutrition, and the National School Lunch Program that we see in public primary and secondary schools is evidence of this. These nutritional needs do not disappear when a student enters college, and sweeping them under the rug is damaging to all parties.

In this day and age there is no need for any individual to go hungry. The United States produces more than enough food to feed the entire population and then some, it is only a matter of ensuring that food makes it into homes and onto tables. If you would like to donate foods that can be distributed to college campuses, please consider donating food items that can be prepared in the microwave or require little preparation.

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