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Emergency Government Food Assistance Programs

Written by: Jody Adams
Last updated: January 31, 2024

There are federal food assistance programs for low-income families and individuals experiencing food insecurity. Every program has its specific purpose. Programs target specific groups, like seniors, mothers with young children, women who are pregnant or nursing, and school students.

Government Food Programs

Listed below are some of the different national-level programs to combat hunger and provide food assistance to vulnerable and at-risk sections of society.

National School Lunch Program

Public and non-profit private schools and residential childcare institutions offer the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which the Federal Government funds. Children receive nutritionally balanced lunches every school day at a low cost or free. President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, establishing the program.

The school district determines if low-income households are eligible for the program each year through the application process. Based on household income, students receive either free lunches or reduced prices. Children participating in the NSLP have increased significantly since the program began. 

School Breakfast Program

Schools and residential childcare institutions that participate in the School Breakfast Program (SBP) are repaid for operating these programs. The School Breakfast Program is administrated by the Food and Nutrition Service at the federal level. The program is administered at the state level by state education agencies and is run at the school level by local school food authorities. Students are encouraged to eat breakfast in the morning to remain alert and productive. Moreover, the program aims to improve students' nutrition.

Non-profit private schools and public schools offer the program along with childcare facilities. This program may be handled differently in different states. Some states offer free or discounted breakfasts for children who qualify based on income. Districts with low-income households might distribute enough funds to provide students with free breakfast.

Special Milk Program

Children enrolled in schools or childcare institutions without access to other Federal meal services can receive milk through the Special Milk Program (SMP). Schools are reimbursed for serving milk under this program. Schools that participate in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Programs are eligible to participate in the Special Milk Program by providing milk to children enrolled in half-day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs.

Summer Food Service Program

Federal funding supports Summer Food Service Programs (SFSP) administered by states. Children and teens living in low-income areas receive free healthy meals and snacks as part of the SFSP program.

Child and Adult Care Food Program

CACFP is a federal program that reimburses eligible child care centers, daycare homes, and adult daycare centers for providing nutritious meals and snacks to children and adults enrolled in those facilities. Additionally, CACFP reimburses meals served to children who attend after-school care programs, children in emergency shelters, and adults over 60 years of age or disabled and enrolled in daycare centers. Children and adults in the United States benefit from CACFP by staying healthy, growing, and developing.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans and CACFP standards align closely. The program includes the following guidelines:

  • Reduce sugar by adhering to specific sugar limits in each serving.
  • Offer whole grain-rich or enriched foods to increase the consumption of whole grains.
  • Iron-fortified infant cereal and formula should be provided to infants.
  • Children and adults should have grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and protein.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program

Another program that supports seniors' health is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). They can obtain nutritious food backed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Seniors in eligible states and Indian reservations who are 60 and over can participate in the program. A medical evaluation may be required of those participating in the program if they are at nutritional risk.

This program provides USDA food packages to seniors to supplement their diet and provide them with nutrition education so they can eat better. Food is distributed to participating states, distributing the food packages to senior citizens participating in their programs.

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

Native Americans living on Indian reservations can take advantage of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). To be eligible for the program, participants must also have income eligibility. Many people and families who qualify for the SNAP program can use this program instead of SNAP benefits because the SNAP office is too far away.

A participant receives a food package containing flour, cereal, spaghetti sauce, fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, and other foods and ingredients. The USDA offers a list of the varieties of foods that are eligible.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP supplements the food budget of needy families to purchase healthy foods and become self-sufficient. With SNAP, families can purchase nutritious food using EBT cards, just like debit cards. The SNAP benefits are accepted at many stores throughout the country and some farmer's markets. If you and your family are struggling financially, SNAP is a great solution.

Several conditions must be met to qualify for benefits under SNAP and food stamps. The conditions are as follows. The applicants must be between 18 and 60 and be able-bodied. An American Indian born in Canada, Mexico, or the US must have a Social Security number or be in the process of obtaining one and qualify for the program. To qualify for the program, the applicant must have limited income and not have many assets or resources. 

Click on your state (or NYC) on the SNAP map to apply and contact your state. Each state has a separate application form. If your location is not on the website, a SNAP application form will need to be requested from your local SNAP office.

Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program

Seniors on low incomes can participate in the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), which provides coupons for free fresh foods at farmers' markets. Seniors eligible for coupons will purchase fruits, herbs, vegetables, and honey. Those over 60 years of age and earning up to 185% of the poverty level may be eligible for the program.

You can gain two significant benefits from this program.

  1. Seniors can obtain nutritional assistance through a program that offers nutritious, locally-grown foods and encourages them to buy healthy food. 
  2. In addition to supporting farmers' markets, it encourages the sale of other agricultural resources.

The Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) was designed to:

  • Provide local fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs to seniors with limited income.
  • Expand farmers' markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs increase the domestic consumption of agricultural commodities.
  • Assist in creating new farmers' markets, roadside stands, and other agricultural programs supported by the community.

Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Program

The ACL's Administration on Aging (AoA) enables states to receive grants to support nutrition services for older people throughout the nation through the Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Program. There is an option of home-delivered meals and healthy meals provided in group settings, such as senior centers and churches. Moreover, nutrition screening, assessments, education, and counseling are also part of these programs.

As a part of the nutrition program, nutrition specialists coordinate with other supportive in-home and community-based programs like homemaker services, home health aide programs, transportation, physical activity, chronic disease management, repair and modification of the home, and fall prevention programs.

States and local governments determine who is eligible for these programs almost entirely. Participants in either the congregate or home-delivered nutrition programs must be at least 60 years of age. 

Section 339 of the Older Americans Act enlarges eligibility to include spouses (of any age) of older adults and allows programs to serve meals to:

  • Volunteers who serve meals during meal times
  • Housing facilities that house mostly older adults and also offer congregate nutrition services for people with disabilities
  • Older adults who reside with people with disabilities
  • Spouses (of any age) of people aged 60 and older 

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

The WIC Program provides supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education to low-income pregnant, nursing, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants, and children up to age five who are nutritionally vulnerable.

State agencies determine participant eligibility, provide WIC benefits and services, and authorized vendors. FNS administers the WIC Program at the federal level. The eligibility for any food aid depends on the applicant's household income and nutritional risk, as determined by a health professional or doctor. People with no income can qualify for food assistance. Contact your local or state WIC agency to make an appointment to apply for the program. Check out your state's website or call the toll-free number

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program

In the fight against childhood obesity, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) plays a crucial role. Children have been exposed to various products that would otherwise be unavailable to them through the program. As a result of the partnerships formed between FNS and state agencies in the public and private sectors and the dedicated efforts of school administrators, the program has been successful and widely accepted. As recommended by the Health and Medicine Division (HMD) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, FFVP is consistent with and supports healthier snack options in schools.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program

To supplement the diets of low-income Americans, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides them with free and emergency food assistance. TEFAP is operated by the US Department of Agriculture, which provides state governments with USDA-grown food and administrative funds. There may be dairy products, meat, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains among the TEFAP food options.

Emergency Food Assistance Programs (TEFAP) provides food assistance for low-income individuals and families. Feeding America used TEFAP and other government programs to serve 2.5 billion meals last year. US farmers, growers, and producers participate in the program, which purchases fruits, vegetables, and other staple foods from the USDA. Feeding America partners with states after connecting families and individuals in need to the food.  

In addition to meals at Congregate Feeding Sites (Soup Kitchens), USDA FNS purchases TEFAP foods and distributes them as Emergency Food Packages.

  • Emergency Food Packages

The Distribution Site (Food Pantry) where participants receive their TEFAP packages enables them to receive at least one for their household every month. Packages containing these foods are shelf-stable, so they don't need to be refrigerated. Fruits, vegetables, beans, juices in bottles, and nuts are all examples of items available in cans or dried. In addition to the standard food package, fresh produce, grains, pasta, and bread are often included.

  • Congregate Feeding Sites (Soup Kitchens)

Congregate meals, which include TEFAP foods, are provided at least once a day at a nutrition site, senior center, or other group settings and are nutritious and hot. Congregate sites might also provide health-related services such as transportation, health screenings, social service referrals, legal assistance, and physical and social activities.

A household's gross income cannot exceed 185% of the Federal Poverty Level to qualify for a TEFAP emergency food package. TEFAP is automatically available to people who receive SNAP benefits (food stamps). A Congregate Feeding Site does not have any formal eligibility requirements. Individuals need only go to the site and mention their needs.

Are you interested in learning more about different grants and programs that can help you with your living situation? Check out the rest of Gov Relations’ blog section today!

Jody Adams
Jody Adams is an accomplished editor-in-chief with a deep understanding of social care and government benefits issues. With a background in journalism and a master's degree in Public Policy, Jody has spent her career shaping the narrative around social policies and their impact on society. She has worked with renowned publications, effectively bridging the gap between complex policy analysis and public understanding. Jody's editorial expertise ensures that vital information on social care and government benefits reaches a broad audience, empowering individuals to make informed decisions.
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