Explaining Food Assistance Programs

How food assistance has evolved and what programs you may be eligible for.

During the Depression, the United States was filled with jobless and hungry folks in cities, standing in soup lines. At the other end of the spectrum, the surplus of “unmarketable” food was significant and farmers were desperate to sell their crops before they spoiled. Milo Perkins, President of the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation in 1939 said, "We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm". This translated into national food assistance programs that connected available food to people in need, the largest of which became known as the “Food Stamp” program that was piloted in 1961. This very program has evolved over the years and continues in  many different forms to meet differing hunger needs today. 

In 2008, there were modifications made to this program and what had been known as “Food Stamps” is now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. People who are in need of assistance may have more than one option – the USDA website is a great resource to find out what the qualifications are and where to go for help. 1-866-348-6479 (1-866-3-HUNGRY) is also a number to call to get more information on the various programs. 

  • SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: This program is open to unemployed, employed, single or families and eligibility is based on income and size of household.
  • WIC (Women, Infants and Children): This program serves pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and children up to age 5. Contact your local health department for more information. This program has established guidelines of what types of food can be purchased. You can receive SNAP and WIC at the same time.
  • Food Banks: These vary depending on locations within states. Many get local donations but they also receive food from TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program). Search your local agencies to find a soup kitchen and/or food pantry near you.
  • School Meal Program/Summer Foodservice program: Income eligible children can receive free or reduced price lunches and breakfast meals at the school or during the summer (not available in all areas).
  • Commodity Supplemental Food Program(CSFP): Serves “commodities” to seniors over the age of 60 or pregnant/breastfeeding women and children to age six. You cannot participate in WIC and CSFP at the same time, but you can receive SNAP and CSFP together.
  • Farmers Market programs: Seniors or those receiving WIC benefits can receive coupons to spend on locally grown produce at their farmers markets or at participating roadside stands. Often referred to as Project Fresh or Senior Project Fresh.
  • Double up Food Bucks: SNAP recipients can receive twice the elected amount of benefits to spend on produce from local markets; you can visit your local market to find out more details.
  • Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations (FDPIR): American Indians are eligible but cannot receive both SNAP and FDPIR
  • Food Help for Disaster Relief: Offers assistance to people following a natural disaster such as a flood or tornado.

Feeding people has been the focus of these programs since their inception. Nutrition education, choosing healthy foods and staying physically active has not, until recently, been a part of food assistance programs. SNAP and other food assistance programs have added nutrition education to its programming, one such effort is called “SNAP-Ed”. Nutrition education programming helps people on a tight budget learn how to stretch their food dollar and purchase healthy foods at their local grocery stores and farmers markets. SNAP-Ed also encourages physical activity and healthy eating in primary and secondary schools. Michigan State University Extension offers many SNAP-Ed programs that can be found on their website www.msue.anr.msu.edu, or through your local county extension office.

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