The Farm Bill's Most Direct Impact on Domestic Hunger

Wed, 08/01/2007

The Farm Bill's most direct impact on domestic hunger comes through the Food Stamp Program (FSP) and smaller federal nutrition programs. The FSP was first authorized in1964 to increase the nutritional levels of low-income households, increase the purchasing power of low-income families and individuals by providing benefits that can be redeemed for food in authorized stores. To qualify for benefits, an applicant's gross income must be less than 130% of the poverty line ($2,043 per month for a family of 4 in 2005), and countable assets (excluding the value of a home but including some vehicles) must be less than $2,000, with special provisions for households with elderly and disabled members. The maximum monthly food stamp allotment ($499 for a family of 4 in 2005) is based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, a low-cost, nutritious model food plan. Maximum benefits are reduced by 30% of a household's net income after accounting for shelter, childcare, medical and work-related expenses. One and two person eligible households are entitled to a minimum monthly benefit of $10. In fiscal year 2005, the FSP served approximately 25.7 million people in an average month, at a total annual cost of $31 billion. The average benefit per person was just under $93 per month. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced that in 2005, 65% of all who were eligible participated in the FSP, compared with 54% in 2001. “No one should go hungry in America. We have increased our nutrition assistance budget by 70% since 2001 and we proposed that the 2007 Farm Bill do even more to increase access and participation in USDA programs to help those in need,” said Johanns. In addition to food stamps, the other major nutrition assistance programs have seen increases since 2001 – 1 million additional children have been added to the National School Lunch Program, 1.3 million to the School Breakfast Program and 700,000 women, infants and children have been added to WIC. In the 1960s, malnutrition similar to that in developing countries could still be found in the U.S. By the 1970s, researchers credited food stamps for the fact that acute malnutrition had virtually disappeared. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, the FSP provided assistance to disaster victims to buy food for their families. “One in 10 U.S. households…do not always have enough food to feed themselves or their families. In many cases, low-income Americans are forced to make choices that most Americans find difficult to even imagine. As members of Congress, we don't have to rely on food stamps but that means it is difficult for many of us to imagine what it is like to experience true hunger or to rely on the Food Stamp Program. Reps. James McGovern (D-MA) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) Letter to Colleagues in the House of Representatives, May 2007 Because the U.S. still has a significant level of food insecurity and hunger, it is vital to maintain a strong FSP. Today approximately half of all food stamp recipients are children. As the Farm Bill is reauthorized, Bread for the World urges Congress to raise food stamp benefits to enable participants to afford an adequate and nutritious diet. The nationwide average monthly benefit amounts to roughly $1 per meal per person. Researchers argue that the food stamp benefit is not enough to purchase healthy foods. The benefit is based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, which was first developed for emergency use during the Great Depression. The Thrifty Food Plan is based on the assumption that families can spend one-third of their income on food, no longer true in an age of rising childcare, housing and transportation costs. Researcher Dr. John Cook of the Boston University School of Medicine found that it would cost 30% more than the typical benefit to purchase a diet that meets the American Heart Association's recommendation. The average $1 per meal benefit is generally enough to purchase sufficient calories, but not enough to buy nutritious foods. In May, Reps. McGovern and Emerson invited their colleagues in the House of Representatives to join them in living on a food stamp budget for 7 days. Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) agreed to participate. While shopping at Safeway, Ryan quickly saw the limits of his budget. "It's unbelievable," he said as he selected peanut butter, jelly, bread, and a big bag of cornmeal. He also got canned tomato sauce and pasta on sale. There was no money for meat, milk, juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, except 32 cents' worth of garlic to flavor.