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Addressing Hunger in America

In our field visits, we observed many successful public and private food programs with track records of effectiveness and bipartisan support. These partnerships highlighted for us the synergy that can occur between government entities, nonprofits, industry, and individuals, not only producing a greater impact on hunger than any one of these sectors could alone, but also strengthening the bonds of communities across social classes and sectors. Through our review of the research, we learned of many effective programs as well as opportunities to enhance the work. The U.S. government, along with many nonprofit organizations, corporations, and individuals, works daily to reach millions of families, and they do so in comprehensive, effective, and creative ways.

Federal Programs

In 2014, the U.S. government spent an estimated $103.6 billion on federal food and nutrition assistance programs, with one in four people having participated in at least one of the government’s 15 food assistance programs at some point during the year. The five largest programs accounted for 97% of these expenditures. Together these programs form a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults, providing them the additional nutrition assistance they need to lead an active and healthy life.

In his formal testimony to the Commission, Dr. Eldar Shafir, the William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, wrote, “The data suggest that government safety nets are not luxuries, but can be powerful tools to improve conditions precisely when things are difficult.” In her formal testimony to the Commission, Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies at American Enterprise Institute, told commissioners, “Data suggest that our main food assistance programs are appropriately targeting those with very low food security.”

The largest food assistance programs are discussed below. 

Largest Federal Food Assistance Programs

  • SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • WIC: Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children
  • School Meals
    • National School Lunch Program
    • School Breakfast Program
  • Summer and Afterschool Programs
    • Summer Food Service Program
    • Child and Adult Care Food Program

WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for specific healthy foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant or postpartum women, and to infants and children under 5 who are at nutritional risk. In 2014, approximately 8.3 million women, infants, and children under 5 received help through the WIC program in an average month. More than half of all newborn children in the United States participated in the WIC program. As of fiscal year 2013, 23% of WIC participants were infants, about 54% were children from 1–4 years old, and 24% were women.

WIC has been credited with a 68% reduction in hunger among families with young children. Kate Breslin, President and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, explained in her testimony that WIC is associated with healthier births, more nutritious diets, improved cognitive development, and stronger connections to preventive health care, including an increased likelihood of children receiving immunizations. Research supports Breslin’s testimony: a longitudinal study of WIC participation examined the association between how long a household participated in WIC and food security status. Among pregnant women who reported hunger, receiving WIC in the first or second trimesters, as opposed to only the third trimester, reduced the odds of food insecurity. Additionally, among children living in food insecure households, children who were on WIC longer had lower odds of hunger at the final clinic visit.

WIC, which involves participants in intensive nutrition education and encourages linkages to health care services, exerts a positive influence on health beyond reducing hunger. According to an analysis of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of 10,700 children born in 2001, WIC decreased the rate of low birth weight by at least 20%. Low birth weight is associated with increased risk of impaired immune function, chronic disease, developmental delays, and high perinatal and lifelong health and educational costs. Another study of 26,950 WIC eligible women and children from 2000 to 2010 found that receiving WIC diminished the effects of multiple stressors, including food insecurity and the depression often accompanying it.

SNAP: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) is the nation’s largest program meant to address hunger by improving access to food for low-income individuals and households through additional income for groceries. According to program operations data from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, SNAP provided assistance to 46.5 million people in an average month in fiscal year 2014, slightly fewer than the 47.6 million people served in an average month in fiscal year 2013. Thomas Ptacek, a military veteran who had experienced homelessness, spoke at the public hearing in Portland, Maine. He said, “It was not a quick and easy road back for me, and the SNAP program was a big part of my success in returning to a more fulfilling life. To me, the most beneficial aspect of the SNAP program is that it allows for choice in the purchase of food that can be prepared in the home…This extra piece, that I personally benefited from greatly, is the sense of normalcy and stability that comes from going to the grocery store and choosing your food.”

SNAP participation has decreased the percentage of households experiencing hunger by 12%–19%.102 In addition, people who participate in SNAP for 2 years are 20%–50% less likely to report hunger than those who leave the program before 2 years.

SNAP provides benefits that go beyond money for food. Compared to low-income, non-SNAP households, mothers receiving SNAP are less likely to experience maternal depression, although they are still more likely to experience maternal depression than mothers in food secure households.104 In households participating in SNAP, children are 16% less likely to be at risk of developmental delays and have lower rates of failure to thrive and hospitalization compared to children in similar households not participating in SNAP.

The larger issues of economic growth, job creation, wages, and family choices are the underpinnings of addressing the root causes of hunger. SNAP is, by design, one of the most responsive programs to economic downturns, diminished labor force participation, and recession economies, doing exactly what it should do to mitigate hunger—eligibility for participation increasing when incomes are decreasing.

In spite of SNAP’s success, hunger remains a stubborn problem. SNAP administrative data show that from 2000 to 2014, the number of SNAP participants has increased 171%. However, hunger rates, relatively steady between 3% and 4% until 2007, also increased dramatically in 2008 (from 4.1% to 5.7%) and remained high in 2009 and 2010. But through 2014, both the increased participation levels and the increased hunger rates have yet to decline significantly, even 6 years into the recovery. 

"Our research has demonstrated the benefits of SNAP and WIC on the health and developmental academic well-being of children. We have come to think of these programs as prescriptions for healthier children. We need research on the adequacy of SNAP benefits in varying family contexts which relate to SNAP benefit levels."
– Patrick Casey, MD, Harvey and Bernice Jones Professor of Developmental Pediatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (Little Rock)

School Meals  

The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program offered meals to more than 30 million students in fiscal year 2014. The programs operate in more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. Because school nutrition programs have such bipartisan support, many communities have seen this as an excellent way to reduce hunger and improve the nutritional status of our children. 

Researchers found that children from food insecure and marginally food secure households receive a larger proportion of their food and nutrient intakes from school meals than do children from food secure households. This difference is partially explained by the higher participation rates of the food insecure and marginally food secure in school meal programs. While some studies have examined the relationship between school meal programs and food security, they cannot assess what the food security status of school meals participants would have been in the absence of the program. However, national nutrition survey data suggest that school meals are an important source of healthy foods: all school lunch participants, especially low-income participants, generally consume more healthful food at lunch than non-participants.

In similar fashion to SNAP and WIC, school nutrition programs have an impact that goes beyond decreasing household hunger. Some studies have examined the correlation between participation in the School Breakfast Program and academic performance. Low-income school breakfast participants are reported to have lower tardiness and absence rates and a larger increase in test scores than low-income children who did not participate. Similarly, studies have linked higher rates of school breakfast participation with improved grades in math.

Despite the value of school breakfast, there remains a wide gap between the number of children who receive school lunch and the number who receive breakfast. In 2014, nearly 22 million school children received a free or reduced price school lunch, but despite the same eligibility, only about half those children participated in school breakfast. Implementing “breakfast after the bell” strategies such as “breakfast in the classroom” or “grab-and-go” meals (instead of serving breakfast in the cafeteria) is a promising approach to improving child nutrition and academic achievement.

Under the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, the Community Eligibility Provision allows schools and local educational agencies in communities with high poverty rates to provide breakfast and lunch to all students without certification requirements, thus decreasing the school’s administrative costs and reducing stress and stigma for parents who would normally have to apply on an individual basis. The Community Eligibility Provision eliminates the burden of collecting household applications to determine eligibility for school meals, relying instead on information from other means-tested programs such as SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, recommended in her testimony to the Commission that use of the Community Eligibility Provision be promoted, since it predominantly serves low-income children and increases access to the school meal program while reducing labor costs to schools.

More than 14,000 high-poverty schools in 2,200 school districts participated under the Community Eligibility Provision120 in the first year of nationwide availability, and more than 6 million children now attend schools participating in the program. In Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan, schools implementing the Community Eligibility Provision in the 2011–2012 school year saw breakfast participation increase from 44% in October 2010 to 56% in October 2012. Lunch participation increased from 69% in October 2010 to 78% in October 2012. To our knowledge, no data are yet available linking the implementation of the Community Eligibility Provision to food security. Therefore, this is an important area for further research. 

Summer and Afterschool Food Programs

Millions of students participate in school lunch and breakfast programs, but during the summer, many children face a period without substantial healthy meals. In 2012, about 4% of households participating in the National School Lunch Program reported “sometimes or often not having enough to eat” from January to May, but this figure increased to over 5% in June and July.

In an effort to address this issue, the Summer Food Service Program enables low-income children to receive meals when school is not in session by going to a central location and eating in a supervised setting. The program is delivered through public-private partnerships with summer camps, summer school, parks and recreation programs, churches, and other community organizations. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, participation is relatively low. In 2014, approximately 14% of eligible children received meals in the summer. More than 2.6 million children participated at almost 45,200 sites in the summer of 2014. While visiting Washington DC, we observed the operation of the Summer Food Service Program at Anacostia Public Library. Washington DC’s summer food programs have served over 1 million meals to children and youth in the District of Columbia in the past three summers, and serve approximately 60% of the DC children who are eligible. On a field visit in Texas, the Anthony Independent School District reported that they increased summer meal participation by almost 60,000 meals. This program helps to employ over 70 high school students who get involved in distributing meals at the baseball and t-ball fields, with a welcoming community atmosphere.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program is another program that serves nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children and adults at participating child care centers, day care homes, and adult day care centers. The program also provides meals and snacks to children and youth participating in afterschool programs or living in emergency shelters. On an average day, 3.8 million children receive nutritious meals and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program in an effort to reduce hunger. The program also provides meals and snacks to 120,000 adults who receive care in nonresidential adult day care centers. However, more empirical research remains to be done to assess links between the Child and Adult Care Food Program and reductions in hunger. 

Other Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs

The federal government operates a number of other smaller programs targeted to specific populations to assist with reducing and preventing food insecurity:

  • The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations provides USDA foods to low-income households, including the elderly, living on Indian reservations. For those living far from food stores, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations is seen as more accessible than SNAP, although traditional food offerings are limited and overall food choices are restricted. Those living near supermarkets tend to choose SNAP for a better variety of foods.
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program provides USDA foods to emergency food providers and food banks to supplement the diets of low-income Americans, including the elderly.
  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program provides seniors with a food package containing good sources of nutrients.
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides students with no-cost fresh fruits and vegetables in school.
  • The Special Milk Program provides participants with no-cost milk through their school, childcare center, or camp.
  • The WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provide coupons participants can use at farmers’ markets for fruits, vegetables, honey, and fresh herbs. To our knowledge no recent research examines the effects of these programs on hunger

Community Programs  

Across our country, individuals, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations, and corporations are engaged in helping to alleviate hunger in their communities. In 2013, 62.6 million people in the United States contributed 7.7 billion volunteer hours, time estimated to be worth $173 billion. Providing food to others was among the most frequently reported activities, with 24% of volunteers saying that they “collected, distributed, prepared, or served food” during the year.

We heard from many volunteers at our hearings, and they were very proud of their organizations’ accomplishments in providing food to low-income people. While almost all experts point out that volunteers alone cannot meet the overall needs of families, and that their efforts cannot replace the effectiveness of federal nutrition assistance programs, volunteers can play an important role in supplementing and leveraging those programs. 

Through innovative school nutrition and summer feeding programming, job training efforts, social services provision, community gardening, farm-to-table programs, soup kitchens, food pantries, and advocacy efforts, volunteers significantly contribute to the work of hunger relief organizations across the country. We provide some examples below. 

  • In Maine, Preble Street involves 5,000 volunteers in serving 500,000 meals yearly across eight local soup kitchens.
  • The DC Central Kitchen relies on 14,000 volunteers each year to help prepare meals, which are provided under government contracts to DC public schools that don’t have the equipment and staff to do their own healthy “scratch cooking,” and to 80 partner agencies, such as homeless shelters.
  • Feeding America, the largest umbrella organization for food banks and food rescue organizations, has 200 members supporting 61,000 agencies that, as of 2010, distributed food to 37 million Americans, including 14 million children. Feeding America organizations benefit from 8 million hours of service per month from 2 million volunteers; more than half of these volunteers manage entire agencies without full-time staff.

Public-Private Partnerships

People and businesses in America are generous and motivated to help solve problems in their communities, and local organizations offer opportunities for cross-sector collaboration to maximize the effectiveness of publicly funded nutrition assistance programs. Public-private partnerships create valuable relationships that draw on the strengths of each organization to meet community needs. Partnerships between public and private entities have the potential to address hunger in ways that go beyond the limitations of government entities, by taking advantage of the ingenuity and creativity of private enterprise. For example, both the public and private sectors bring knowledge about food production and insights about pressing social issues.

Public-private partnerships use a variety of strategies to reduce hunger, and can be classified into five categories.

  • SNAP partnerships offer outreach to increase SNAP participation and train volunteers to help individuals apply for SNAP and offer nutrition education. For example, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance brings together 47 food banks and pantries and has increased access to SNAP applications throughout the state. SNAP partnerships also involve efforts to assist eligible participants in completing SNAP applications. Another example is Making Dinner a SNAP, a collaborative effort developed between the private nonprofit Ohio District 5 Area Agency on Aging Inc., five grocery stores, the Department of Job and Family Services in Richland County, and local nursing homes. The program aims to increase senior SNAP participation and teach seniors about cost-effective, nutritious recipes.
  • Child nutrition partnerships focus on increasing school meal and summer meal participation and promoting farm-to-table initiatives. For example, ConAgra Foods has funded grants to Feeding America programs such as Kids Café, which provides free meals or snacks in afterschool settings, and Child Hunger Corps, which trains people in food banks nationwide to implement outside-of-school meal programs for children. Public-private partnerships also work together to implement child nutrition assistance initiatives. For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra work together to facilitate community education delivered by registered dietitian nutritionist educators. In addition, more than 80 private partners and state agencies recruit meal sites and facilitate the distribution of meals for summer breakfasts, lunches, and food backpacks on the weekends.
  • Food distribution partnerships include food hubs that coordinate the sale and transport of produce from farm to local markets, stores, and emergency food providers. For example, in Indianapolis, we visited a partnership between Elanco (a division of Eli Lilly and Company), Kroger Country, Rose Acres Farms, and two Indiana food banks to make eggs more accessible to undernourished people of all ages. The Indianapolis partnership also meets regularly to discuss and collaborate on research projects and a variety of other anti-hunger efforts.
  • Healthy food access partnerships work to improve availability of healthy foods. For example, the Boston Bounty Bucks program promotes the purchase of fruits and vegetables. The program, begun in 2008 as a partnership between The Food Project nonprofit and the City of Boston, provides electronic benefit transfer terminals at farmers’ markets so SNAP recipients can use benefits to buy produce. The program promotes purchase of healthful food by providing a dollar-for-dollar matching incentive for SNAP purchases up to $10. By the 2013–2014 season, $166,540 SNAP and Bounty Bucks dollars were spent through the program at 20 farmers’ markets in the Boston area.138 The New York City Health Department and Human Resources Administration works with Greenmarket Co. to distribute $2 Health Buck coupons for every $5 that electronic benefit transfer customers spend on fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market. Fifty-one Greenmarkets distributed over $260,000 in Health Bucks in 2013.139 In addition, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, using funding from Feeding America, General Mills, the ConAgra foundation, and the National Dairy Council, provides community training tools and educational grants for registered dietitian nutritionists to teach low income people how to cook for their families. In another example, Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters Program works with local organizations to educate and empower low-income families to stretch their food budgets so their children get healthy meals at home. Cooking Matters, which leverages SNAP Nutrition Education funding in local markets, helps participants learn to shop strategically, use nutrition information to make healthy food choices, and cook affordable meals.
  • Research and education partnerships create collaborations among government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, and community organizers to raise awareness and engage other stakeholders in their efforts. For example, the USDA Hunger-Free Communities Grants Awards program provided money to local governments and nonprofits to help assess and reduce hunger. In another example, Tyson Foods launched the KNOW Hunger Initiative with the Food Research and Action Center to assess people’s views on hunger in the United States and raise awareness of hunger among stakeholders to encourage people to get involved in anti-hunger campaigns.

Public-private partnerships can help address hunger and many related issues (e.g., insufficient low-cost housing, lack of employment, inadequate child care opportunities) that contribute to food insecurity in communities where federal assistance programs cannot fulfill immediate needs. Open communication and clear guidelines may help to increase the effectiveness of partnerships.133 Existing partnerships may serve as examples for future initiatives and can provide peer advice to other nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and corporations that wish to similarly commit resources and staff to such partnerships.