Nutrition Assistance

Policy & Practice, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Nutrition Assistance


Federal food assistance programs have long been critical to the success of the web of benefits and services that states administer. The ability to purchase adequate food and maintain a nutritious diet is essential to the general economic security, health, and overall well-being of the families and children we serve. President Obama's pledge to end hunger in the United States by 2015 recognizes these facts.


There are 15 federal food programs, with the majority distributing their benefits to low-income families and individuals. These programs support working families, children, and the elderly and disabled. Most contain nutrition requirements or a nutrition education component. They were established to promote the health and well-being of families and individuals that do not have the resources to obtain an adequate and healthy diet on their own. They send to the states billions of federal tax dollars that are, in the main, spent in local communities supporting local businesses. All involve federal, state, and local agencies working together to achieve the goals of the programs.

Current Nutrition Programs

The largest of the 15 federal food programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program), which at $33.2 billion (fiscal year 2007) accounted for approximately 66 percent of all food and nutrition spending (excluding food assistance for disaster relief). The next largest programs, which all contain fixed nutrition requirements, account for approximately 33 percent of spending. These are the School Lunch Program ($8.7 billion); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) ($5.5 billion); and the School Breakfast Program ($2.2 billion). The remaining 11 programs, which account for about 1 percent of spending, have specific targets such as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs (approximately $41 million) and various commodity programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program ($250 million appropriated for FY 2009).

Despite significant advances in SNAP participation in recent years, higher participation in other nutrition programs such as WIC and school meals, and significant SNAP benefit improvements enacted as part of the 2008 farm bill, millions of families still experience food insecurity and have poor nutritional intake. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that for 2007, 11.1 percent (13 million) of all households were food insecure. Sometime during the year, these households lacked the resources to provide enough food for all their members. About one-third of these households experienced very low food security (substantial disruptions in eating patterns and food intake) sometime during the year. This figure rose from the 2005 and 2006 level of 10.9 percent (12.6 million) of all households.

Challenges: Closing the Food Security and Nutrition Gap

Nutrition and Chronic Medical Conditions

Millions of Americans (increasingly including children) suffer from obesity, which for many has resulted in Type 2 diabetes. For 2007, the estimated direct and indirect cost of diabetes alone in the United States was $174 billion, according to Centers for Disease Control data. Direct medical costs accounted for $116 billion (2.3 times higher than what expenditures would be in the absence of diabetes) and indirect costs, such as disability, work loss, and premature mortality, were listed at $58 billion. Other diseases associated win obesty increase this cost by approximately 20 percent to $139 billion. This takes the issue of food and nutrition beyond hunger and into the health care debate. Prevention of these nutrition-related conditions is far better both for the individual and a society struggling to afford adequate health care for its citizens.

Poor nutritional intake in low-income households has many interrelated causes: inadequate food budgets and skyrocketing food prices that force purchase of the cheapest foods; large and isolated geographic areas where mainstream grocery stores are absent or distant ("food deserts"); insufficient nutrition education; and the pervasive presence of fast foods and enticing advertising. …

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