What to Know About Food Assistance Programs

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 11, 2022
5 min read

Food assistance programs in the United States are designed to help people in need meet their basic nutritional and dietary needs. These programs are aimed to help low-income individuals and families and provide them with nutritional staples. There are programs at the local, state, and federal levels, including both public and private.

Food assistance programs in the U.S. aim to help the millions of people for whom food scarcity and hunger are a daily reality. Food scarcity is both an economic and social condition in which households have limited or unstable access to enough of the food they need to feed the family. It’s estimated that 40 million Americans face food insecurity every year due to a number of different reasons. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in food insecurity as people face unemployment, closed businesses, and social distancing measures.

There are both public and private food assistance programs in the United States to help people who are struggling with food scarcity or hunger. Chances are that you are familiar with or have heard of some of these programs. So who qualifies for them and how do they work?

SNAP program. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps, is a federal program that helps people gain access to nutritious food. There are currently 9.5 million families with children across the country who depend on SNAP benefits as a source of nutritious food. It is the largest federal program in the U.S. that is dedicated to fighting hunger.

SNAP is available to low-income households and seniors, people with disabilities, or those on a fixed income. While it is widely available, college students, strikers, and undocumented immigrants cannot receive SNAP benefits. Unemployed adults without children are normally limited to only three months of food stamps. Childless adults who are working 20 hours a week or more or are in a participating work program and still below the  poverty line may qualify for extended SNAP benefits.

On average, SNAP recipients get an average of about $4 a day in benefits to buy food. The funds are delivered through an electronic debit (EBT) card. More than 238,000 retailers across the US are authorized to access EBT as payment for groceries.

WIC. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) aims to protect the health of children 5 and under who are at risk of not having access to proper nutrition. Through WIC, moms and small children can receive:

  • Healthcare access
  • Education and information on nutrition and breastfeeding
  • Nutritious foods

The WIC program protects women and children from developing illnesses related to poor nutrition. Research shows that children who don’t have access to proper nutrition have higher chances of developing health problems and have difficulty learning in school. This program is administered at the state level and serves as many people as it can with the available funding.

Child Nutrition Programs. Since proper nutrition is critical during childhood, there are special food assistance programs for children at schools. These include:

  • National School Lunch Program
  • School Breakfast Program
  • Special Milk Program
  • Child and Adult Care Food Program
  • Summer Food Service Program
  • Team Nutrition
  • Community Food Systems

These programs provide free or low-cost meals, like breakfast and lunch, at schools to children. These programs feed millions of children each day, aiming to provide them with balanced meals while they are at school.

Federal food assistance programs are provided by the government. People can receive food assistance in other ways from private organizations.

Food banks. Food banks are non-profit organizations that collect products through donations. This can be from:

  • Food drives
  • Restaurants
  • Neighbors
  • Retailers
  • Grocery stores
  • Growers 

After collecting food donations, the food bank stores them and then distributes them to organizations and charities that fight hunger. These donations normally don’t go to individual people.

Food banks can be large or small, but collectively they deliver millions of pounds of food each year to organizations that help those in need. Some examples of these are food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens. Through food banks, these charitable groups can secure low-cost food in large quantities that are then given to those who are struggling with hunger.

Food pantries. Food pantries receive donations from food banks. They act as centers where packages of food are given to those in need. Food pantries provide for those within a designated community and can be staffed by employees or volunteers. Some communities even have mobile pantries to deliver to those in rural areas or with limited mobility.

Soup kitchens. The first soup kitchens in the U.S. opened up around 1870 and became very important during the Great Depression to fight hunger. They served hot, filling soup with bread to help people survive during a time when food was scarce. Today, soup kitchens are still an important food assistance program that helps vulnerable people. Here, people can have a free hot meal and a safe place to eat.

The first step in applying for SNAP is to locate your local office. Here, you can fill out an application for the food stamps program. While SNAP is federal, the benefits are administered by the state so each state has its own application. There are several application options, so you don’t have to apply in person if you don’t want to.

You will need to provide your social security number, which is then run through a series of government databases. You must also provide official documents that show your income and current expenses. All of these things are used together to determine if you are eligible to receive SNAP benefits.

Once you apply, your local office will let you know within 30 days whether or not you’re eligible to receive food stamps. During that time, you will have an interview, either in-person or over the phone, and you will have to verify the documents that you provided earlier. If your SNAP application is approved, you will get an EBT card that is automatically reloaded each month.