U.S. Domestic Food Assistance Programs

Rachel B. Morgan RN, BSN 8/24/2015


At some point during the year, about 1-in-4 Americans participate in at least one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs. About three-quarters of USDA’s annual budget goes to these programs, which vary by size, target population, and type of benefits provided.

Together these programs form a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults.

Since the 1930s, Congress has been interested in issues of hunger and allocating federal resources to alleviate food insecurity and prevent the physical and psychological outcomes—such as low birth weights, chronic illnesses, and anxiety—associated with being undernourished.

Because hunger is difficult to measure, the terms “food security” and “food insecurity” are the prevailing terms used instead of “hunger,” to describe the ability to access adequate food. The two terms focus on those economic and other access-related reasons associated with an individual’s ability to purchase or otherwise obtain enough to eat. 

Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs

Federal expenditures for USDA’s domestic food and nutrition assistance programs totaled $103.6 billion in fiscal 2014 or 5 percent less than the previous fiscal year. This was the first decrease in food and nutrition assistance expenditures in 15 years.

Food and nutrition assistance programs vary by size, by type of benefit provided, and by target population and generally fall within four categories of service: food distribution, child nutrition, women, infants and children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) The five largest programs which accounted for 96 percent of total USDA expenditures for domestic food and nutrition assistance in fiscal year 2014 were:

  1. SNAP.
  2. The National School Lunch Program.
  3. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
  4. The School Breakfast Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Administrative authority for federal food assistance programs has been dispersed throughout three federal departments—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Congressional Authorization for Domestic Food Assistance Programs

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which authorized funds for USDA’s school meal and child nutrition programs—including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. These programs are generally reauthorized for five-year periods, which is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2015.

The Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Programs, part of the Administration on Aging (AOA) within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), provides grants to states to help support nutrition services for older people throughout the country. The OAA Nutrition Programs include the Congregate Nutrition Program and the Home-Delivered Nutrition Program. The Older Americans Act Title III Grants Authorize programs for state and community programs on aging; and the Title VI Grants authorize programs for American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

The purposes of these programs are to: 1) reduce hunger and food insecurity, 2) promote socialization, 3) promote health and well-being, and 4) delay adverse health conditions. In the 114th Congress, the Senate introduced a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the OAA for a three-year period. The Older Americans Act Reauthorization Act of 2015 (S. 192) was introduced Jan. 20, 2015, and would authorize appropriations for most OAA programs through FY2018.

The Agriculture Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-79), commonly referred to as the farm bill, is an omnibus reauthorization and extension of dozens of farm, food, and nutrition laws that Congress last approved Feb. 7, 2014. The farm bill contained 12 titles on topics ranging from conservation, rural development, and research to horticulture. The nutrition title, Title IV, included authorizing language for SNAP, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), Food Distribution for Child Nutrition Programs, Senior Farmers Market Program, Community Food Projects, Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Program and Hunger-free Community Grants.

Federal Register Notifications

WIC and Child Nutrition Program Eligibility Guidelines

March 31, 2015: The USDA released income and eligibility guidelines for the Child Nutrition and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Programs in the Federal Register. The guidelines are to be used in determining eligibility for each program for the period from July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016.

Professional Standards for State and Local School Nutrition Programs Personnel as Required by the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

Feb. 27, 2015: The USDA made available $4 million in funding to states to support implementation of new standards for all school nutrition employees who manage and operate the National school Breakfast Programs (SBPs). The new standards were published March 4, 2015, in final rules issued by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). USDA will competitively-award fiscal year 2015 funds to help state agencies comply with the professional standards rule through education and training of the school nutrition personnel.

The rule requires a minimum amount of annual training hours for all new and current state school nutrition directors, state distributing agency directors, school nutrition directors, managers, and staff. Required topic areas will vary according to position and job requirements. These changes are effective beginning July 1, 2015, with several built-in flexibilities intended to facilitate the first year of implementation and address the challenges faced by smaller school districts.

FNS has a Web page that addresses implementation of the final rule and offers additional tools for school districts related to the new training standards.

NCSL Activity

NCSL Hunger Partnership

The NCSL Foundation for State Legislatures launched the Hunger Partnership to raise the visibility of hunger in America and highlight innovative and lasting solutions. The goal of the project is to connect the public and private sectors to improve the availability of healthy food for hungry families.

The Hunger Partnership links legislators, legislative staff and interested businesses to identify innovative and successful programs and develop bipartisan, balanced and concise materials and mechanisms to support legislators in their efforts to reduce hunger in America. For more information, go to www.ncsl.org/hunger.

The NCSL Hunger Partnership has resources available on the Web on the following programs: