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Many individuals living in poverty lack food security, meaning they were unable to acquire—or were uncertain of their ability to acquire—enough food to meet the needs of all household members. Research shows that these individuals struggling with food insecurity often have poor health outcomes. Poverty and poor health are often linked for consumers with chronic conditions and complex support needs. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, U.S. spending on supplemental nutrition assistance programs totaled $101 billion, down 7.4% from FY2013 when spending peaked at $109.1 billion. On an inflation-adjusted basis, this is a decrease of 10.2% since 2013.

To help combat these problems, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service offers a variety of nutrition assistance programs to reduce food insecurity and ultimately help improve overall health and well-being. These programs include:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): provides a monthly electronic benefit transfer to purchase virtually any food item
  • Supplemental Foods Program for Women, Children, and Infants (WIC): vouchers or electronic benefits to purchase specific food items included in an individualized food packages
  • Child Nutrition Programs: a series of programs that provide meals for free or at a reduced cost to children in kindergarten through grade 12, children in child care facilities, and adults in day care programs

The United States’ nutrition assistance programs are income-based and are designed to assist individuals who are food insecure on a short-term basis; however, each program has a different population focus, different levels of benefits, and different funding mechanisms. Families with children of multiple ages may qualify for SNAP and WIC and the children receive free lunch at school. SNAP is by far the largest program serving 44.2 million individuals in FY2016, while 22.1 million children received free and reduced lunch, and 7.7 million people received WIC.

This report explores trends in spending for each of these supplemental nutrition assistance programs, characteristics of each of the programs, spending by state, as well as participation and eligibility requirements.

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