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Food Assistance in the United States

Food Assistance in the United States

 By: Laura Crouch

In the United States, millions of people face hunger and food insecurity each day. Unable to provide for themselves and their families, they turn to food assistance programs for both short and long term needs.   

The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” (USDA, 2019). About 40 million Americans struggle with food insecurity each year. A number of factors perpetuate food insecurity in the United States. Economic recession and natural disasters drastically increase the number of people with limited access to food. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about social distancing measures that disrupted the daily lives of Americans and increased unemployment as businesses closed or laid off workers. These factors seriously exacerbated food insecurity (Feeding America, 2020).alt[View Image]
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Members of the National Guard providing a Delaware food pantry with much needed assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo: The National Guard (CC by 2.0)

A report, published by the Northwestern Institute of Policy and Research, analyzed data from COVID-19 impact surveys and concluded that food insecurity “doubled overall and tripled among those with children” (Schanzenbach and Pitts, 2020). In particular, the rates of food insecurity among Black and Hispanic Americans during the early months of the pandemic was higher than White Americans with “approximately 2 in 5 Black and Hispanic households with children” experiencing food insecurity (Schanzenbach and Pitts, 2020). The rising rates of food insecurity placed unprecedented demand on food banks. This same survey indicated that 1 in 10 people who responded to the survey interacted with food banks in the prior week (2020, Schanzenbach and Pitts). 

A variety of private and public programs in the United States seek to help those who need additional food. Private programs provide hot meals, or canned goods and groceries that can be prepared. Federal government programs provide the means for people to purchase specific items for themselves at stores. The continual evolution of food assistance programs represents shifting ideas about the role that the federal government should play in alleviating hunger and food insecurity. Below are listed a variety of food assistance programs that either are currently, or have in the past, been available in the United States.


Private Food Assistance Programs

Soup Kitchensalt[View Image]
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Photograph of a Soup Kitchen During the Depression
Photo: National Archives
National Archives Identifier: 196174

Around 1870, private charity organizations began establishing soup kitchens in the United States as a part of the widespread Charity Organization Movement. Soup became ubiquitous for immediate hunger relief because it was cheap, filling, and easy to make in large quantities. Soup kitchens became crucial during the Great Depression. With over 13 million Americans out of work, many relied on soup kitchens for their survival. Today, the soup kitchen remains a quintessential food assistance program where individuals are provided with a free hot meal and a place to eat. 

Food Pantries

Food Pantries provide mostly canned goods and non-perishable food items to those in need. Unlike meal programs, food pantries provide people with groceries that need to be prepared off-site, rather than providing a single hot meal that is ready to eat. Like soup kitchens, these programs are often run by religious organizations, nonprofits, and charity organizations. The setup of these pantries can vary widely. Some groups operate mobile pantries in order to reach those with mobility issues, particularly the elderly (Waite, 2019).

Food Banks

In 1967, John van Hengel established the first food bank in Phoenix, Arizona. This food bank, called St. Mary’s, was a new type of food assistance program. Van Hengel would take items that the food industry was not able to sell, and put them in the food bank warehouse. He would then distribute them to soup kitchens, food pantries, and other front line organizations. Food industry corporations that provide food donations receive tax breaks. The food bank model became popular during the early 1980s as a result of the Reagan administration’s cuts to social welfare programs like food stamps. By 1983, the food banking concept spread to Canada and Europe. Today, there are food banks all over the world (Sullivan, 2005).  

Federal Food Assistance Programs 

 Image of one of the first food stamps printed in 1939[View Image]
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First Food Stamp, 1939
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID: hec 26518

Food Stamps 

In 1939, as part of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt established the first federal food stamp plan. It was intended as a solution to widespread food insecurity and a growing food surplus during the Great Depression. Eligible people would buy orange stamps equivalent to what they would usually spend on food. For every two orange stamps they bought, they would receive one blue stamp for free. These blue stamps could be used to purchase surplus food (USDA, 2018). 

While the federal government discontinued the New Deal program in 1943, in the 1960s lawmakers expressed renewed interest in revitalizing the food stamp program when once again there was difficulty distributing the nation’s surplus to people in need. John F. Kennedy’s first executive order in 1961 established several food stamp pilot programs. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 codifying these pilot programs and enacting a permanent food stamp program. Eligible people would purchase food coupons and use them to buy any food item with the exception of alcohol, tobacco, and imported foods. The Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 reformed the program and eliminated the requirement that coupons or stamps needed to be purchased. After consistently investing in and supporting the food stamp program, significant cuts were made to the program in the early 1980s while Ronald Reagan was president (USDA, 2018).

Supplemental Food Nutrition Program (SNAP)

In 2008 the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act was passed which changed the name of the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Food Nutrition Program (SNAP). It also changed the name of the Food Stamp Act of 1977 to the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008. The name was changed in an attempt to destigmatize participation in the program. This new act also placed a greater emphasis on providing nutritious meals. Unlike many other food assistance programs, SNAP gives people the ability to choose what they would like to buy instead of relying on whatever food they are given. In April of 2020, 42,995,224 individuals and 22,213,674 households were enrolled in the SNAP program (USDA, 2020).

Electronic Benefit Transferalt[View Image]
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EBT cards
Photo: USDA (CC by 2.0)

Along with the name change from “food stamps” to SNAP, the means for purchasing food has been updated. Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards allow individuals who participate in the SNAP program to use a card, similar to a bank card, and a four digit PIN to pay retailers for items using their SNAP benefits. The purpose of switching to these cards was to make the system simpler for people to use, and eliminate the stigma associated with using physical paper food stamps or coupons. The first EBT pilot program was established in 1984 in Pennsylvania and by 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed that mandated all states use EBT for SNAP benefits by 2002 (USDA, 2018).

National School Lunch Program 

In 1946, President Truman signed the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act which created the National School Lunch Program. One of a handful of federal Child Nutrition Programs, this program provides eligible school children with low cost or free lunches through subsidies to public and private schools. Much like the food stamp program, the purpose of the National School Lunch Program originally was to address the problem of farm surpluses while subsidizing agriculture and feeding those in need. 

According to the USDA, the program was responsible for feeding 30.4 million children in 2016 (USDA, 2017). Unexpected school closures in the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that children no longer had access to food through the School Lunch Program. Additional programs were put in place in order to assist those who relied heavily on the School Lunch Program for food. 


Other Programs 

These are some of the most notable national food assistance programs in America. However, there are also many small, non-religious, grassroots organizations that provide food assistance at a local level. Many of these organizations operate on the principle of mutual aid and solidarity for their community. An example of this kind of organizing includes the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program, which was active from 1969 to 1980. The program provided school age children in Black neighborhoods with a free meal before school. In order to operate the program, the Panthers relied on donations from organizations, churches, and local businesses within the community that they served.  By 1971, at least 36 cities had a Free Breakfast Program run by the Black Panthers (Pien, 2010).

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked the creation of many different local mutual aid groups that specifically address issues related to the virus. These organizations collect donations from the community, and supply disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to those who need it. Many mutual aid groups will deliver groceries directly to people who are in quarantine or isolation because they have the virus or are immunocompromised (Lawrence, 2020). 

In some cases, healthcare institutions and food assistance nonprofits collaborate in order to ensure that those who test positive for COVID-19 have access to food while they are isolated. This assistance benefits those who are ill, while at the same time protecting the larger community from the spread of infection. The collaboration also focuses on providing people a balanced and nutritional diet, thereby aiding recovery (Nanos, 2020). 

The problem of hunger is complicated and variable, calling for a range of innovative solutions. Some organizers are seeking new solutions to food insecurity that differ from traditional food assistance. In Richmond, Virginia, a group of local organizers who see urban farming as one solution.  The Richmond Food Justice Corridor, for example, focuses on providing urban communities of color in Richmond with the ability to grow their own food. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, food justice activists began organizing to build raised garden beds in the yards of underserved community members so that they would be able to have access to fresh food (Hardaway, 2020). Enabling people of color and, in particular, the Black community to have power and control over the food that they eat is not only an attempt to end food insecurity but also to restore autonomy to communities that have continually been stripped of resources as a result of systemic racism. (Modlin-Jackson 2019).

Ultimately there have been, and continue to be, a wide range of food assistance programs in the United States as hunger affects the nation’s rural, urban, and suburban communities. So long as food insecurity remains an issue for millions, private organizations and federal government agencies will need to continue to develop creative solutions for providing people in need with food.  



Video from Feeding America


Feeding America. (2020, March 30). The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity.

Hardaway, Mary Scott. (2020, June 30). Where the Dream Lives. Style Weekly. Retrieved on July, 21, 2020 from

Lawrence, Elizabeth. (2020, July 26). ‘Love and Solidarity’: Amid Coronavirus, Mutual Aid Groups Resurge In New York City. NPR. Retrieved July 26, 2020 from

Modlin-Jackson, Cat. (2019, April 23). Fighting for Food Justice in a Gentrified Richmond. RVA Magazine. Retrieved on July, 21, 2020 from

Nanos, Janelle. (2020, August 14). Health Care Institutions, Nonprofits Team Up to Battle Hunger and the Pandemic. The Boston Globe. Retrieved on August 18, 2020 from

Pien, D. (2010, February 11) Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program (1969-1980). Retrieved on July 20,2020 from

Schanzenbach, D. W., & A. Pitts. (2020, May 13) Estimates of food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis: Results from the COVID Impact Survey, Week 1 (April 20–26, 2020). Northwestern Institute for Policy Research. Retrieved July 16, 2020, from 

Sullivan, Patricia (2005,October 08). John van Hengel Dies at 83; Founded 1st Food Bank in 1967. Washington Post. Retrieved July 20, 2020 from

USDA. (2017, November). The National School Lunch Program. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved July 20,2020 from

USDA. (2018, September 11). A Short History of SNAP. Retrieved July 20, 2020 from

USDA. (2019, September 04). Definitions of Food Security. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Retrieved July 16, 2020, from

USDA. (2020, July 10). SNAP Web Tables. Retrieved July 20, 2020 from 

Waite, Tori. (2019, February 20). What is the Difference Between a Food Bank and a Food Pantry?. Feeding America. Retrieved July 21, 2020 from

For further reading: 

Food Assistance.

Poppendieck, Janet (1999). Introduction, Chapter 1. Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. Penguine. 

SNAP to Health. (n.d). The History of SNAP. Retrieved July 21, 2020 from

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