Hunger in America 2014 documents the critical role that Feeding America member food banks and their partner agencies play in supporting struggling families in the United States. Study results are based on nationally representative surveys conducted in 2012–13 of agencies that operate food programs in the charitable food assistance network supported by Feeding America and of clients that access services through that network. The current assessment occurs during historically high demand for food assistance in a persistently weak economy.
The charitable food assistance network has expanded to serve the growing needs of individuals seeking to access food for themselves and their families.
The U.S. Charitable Food Network Serves a Critical Need
The federal government annually measures household food security, defined as all people in a household having enough food for an active healthy life at all times. There are four indicated levels of food security, from high to very low (5). Households classified as having low or very low food security are combined into the food-insecure category. In 2012, more than one in seven US households (18 million, or 15 percent) experienced food insecurity at some time during the year (6). All these households experienced limited or uncertain access to adequate food, including reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. About 7 million of these households had members who went hungry or skipped meals, an indication of very low food security.
Federal food assistance programs help alleviate hunger and poor nutrition for millions of food-insecure individuals. These programs are targeted at low-income households, with specific programs targeting vulnerable populations like children, seniors, and pregnant or postpartum women. About six in ten (59 percent) food-insecure households participate in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)(7).
- SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp program, is the largest federal food assistance program. SNAP provides low-income families with electronic benefits to be used toward the purchase of nutritious food items.
- The WIC program offers nutrition education and supplemental foods to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.
- NSLP is a federal meal program that provides a nutritionally balanced free or reduced-price lunch to eligible children at school (8). These programs, along with other aspects of the federal nutrition safety net, alleviate hunger and improve nutrition and health outcomes.
Nonetheless, despite providing critical assistance, federal nutrition assistance programs do not reach everyone at risk of hunger in the United States (9). For example, an estimated 27 percent of the food-insecure population in 2012 had household incomes above the standard eligibility thresholds for federal nutrition assistance programs. For these individuals and families, charitable food assistance may be the only available source of support.
Feeding America supports a nationwide network of food banks that help combat hunger through coordinated efforts with affiliated agencies in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. At the national level, Feeding America secures food from corporate manufacturers and retailers and facilitates the acquisition of government food supplies by the food banks, which distribute a combined total of more than three billion pounds of food and grocery products annually.
Feeding America provides additional assistance to food banks in the form of grants to support local anti-hunger initiatives, technical assistance, and support to maximize participation in SNAP and other previously mentioned federal nutrition assistance programs. Individual food banks also independently solicit food and financial donations from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to, regional manufacturers, retailers, and businesses.
Each food bank works with a network of partner agencies to support local hunger relief programs by distributing food, helping clients access federal nutrition programs, and raising awareness about the scope of hunger within its service areas. Partner agencies may also offer additional services, such as the distribution of donated clothing or furniture, job-training or literacy programs, or nutrition education.
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(5) The US Department of Agriculture defines four levels of food security. High food security indicates no reported food-access problems. Marginal food security indicates reported problems that are typically anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house, but with little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake. Low food security indicates reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet and indicates little or no reduced food intake. Very low food security indicates reports of multiple disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. The food security measure used in HIA 2014 combines high and marginal food security into one category, in keeping with the USDA ERS annual reporting. Low and very low food security are also combined into another category (food insecure). Definitions are from www.usda.gov.
(6) Alicia Coleman-Jensen, Mark Nord, and Anita Singh, Household Food Security in the United States in 2012, ERR-155 (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 2013). These numbers exclude the homeless and those in temporary housing, many of whom are served by the private food assistance network.
(7) Coleman-Jensen et al., Household Food Security in the United States in 2012, table 2, p. 13.
(8) Program descriptions from www.fns.usda.gov.
(9) Numerous recent studies show how federal food assistance programs reduce food insecurity. For example, a 2013 study finds that participation in SNAP for about six months is associated with a 4.6 percent decrease in the number of food-insecure households; longer participation further reduces food insecurity. See James Mabli, Jim Ohls, Lisa Dragoset, Laura Castner, and Betsy Santos, Measuring the Effect of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Participation on Food Security (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, 2013). See also B. Kreider, J. Pepper, C. Gundersen, and D. Jolliffe, “Identifying the Effects of SNAP (Food Stamps) on Child Health Outcomes When Participation is Endogenous and Misreported,” Journal of the American Statistical Association 107, no. 499 (2012): 958–75. Published studies by Caroline Ratcliffe, Signe-Mary McKernan, and Sisi Zhang, “How Much Does the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Reduce Food Insecurity?” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 93, no. 4 (2011): 1082–98; and by E. Mykerezi and B. Mills, “The Impact of Food Stamp Program Participation on Household Food Insecurity,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 92, no. 5 (2010): 1379–91 show that SNAP participation substantially decreases the risk of household food insecurity.