Home / Government / Articles / How the US government uses programs like SNAP to combat food insecurity — and why those benefits have decreased

Food insecurity rose among Black and Hispanic households, single-parent households, and households with children during the pandemic. More people also enrolled in government programs combating food insecurity compared to pre-pandemic years.

The US government added extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits during the pandemic. These emergency allotments officially ended on March 1, 2023 (although some states had previously already stopped issuing the benefits). These allotments impacted the 41 million Americans receiving SNAP food-buying benefits.

Food insecurity is the limited or unknown availability of nutritional and safe foods for everyone in a household to meet their basic needs.

In 2021, 10.2% of households experienced food insecurity, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 3.8% of households, people ate less or skipped multiple meals due to a lack of food — the most extreme form of food insecurity.

How the government combats food insecurity with SNAP, WIC, and NSLP

The government aids families experiencing food insecurity through programs ranging from breakfast and lunch for schoolchildren to nutrition programs for women, children, and infants.

In 2020, about 55% of food-insecure households were in at least one of the three largest federal nutrition assistance programs: SNAP, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). There are several other federal food assistance programs that target high-risk communities to prevent food insecurity and hunger including the Food and Nutrition Service, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, USDA National Hunger Clearinghouse, the Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program and more.

Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program

SNAP, also known as food stamps, is the government’s largest nutrition benefit program.

Embed on your website

In 2019, the USDA launched a two-year online purchasing pilot program that allowed New York SNAP participants to select and buy groceries from authorized online retailers, including Walmart, Safeway, ShopRite, Amazon. The online purchasing program currently operates in 49 states and in Washington, DC, through grocery store chains and independent grocers.

There was $119 billion of nutrition assistance (SNAP) spending in the US in 2022, an increase of 5% or $5.7 billion from 2021. Over 22 million households participated.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children

WIC serves low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk. The program provides nutritional food, information on healthy eating, and healthcare referrals. WIC provides services at hospitals, county health departments, schools, community centers, and more.

WIC served about 6.2 million people per month in 2021. Almost half of all infants born in the United States were served by the program. The federal program cost $5 billion in fiscal year 2021.

National School Lunch Program

NSLP is another government child nutrition program. It’s a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare facilities. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

In 2022, NSLP served an average of 30.1 million children each school day. About $1.5 billion was spent on the program last year.

Who is most impacted by food insecurity?

In 2021, 32.1% of households with incomes below the federal poverty line were food insecure. Children with unemployed parents have higher rates of food insecurity than children with employed parents. Thirty-two percent of unemployed households were food insecure compared to 8% households with full-time employed parents.

For households with children, 6.9% had at least one food insecure child in 2021.

Embed on your website

Single-parent households also had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average. Single-mother households had a 24% rate of food insecurity. Single-father households had a rate of 16%.

Black families and Hispanic families also had higher rates of food insecurity. In 2021, 19.8% of Black households and 16.2% of Hispanic households were food insecure. Food insecurity decreased from 2020 to 2021.

Embed on your website

People living in neighborhoods with limited public transportation and fewer grocery stores are at higher risk of experiencing food insecurity.

Communities that lack affordable and nutritious food are commonly known as food deserts according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Convenience stores are more common in food deserts than full-service grocery stores. These stores may have higher-priced and lower-quality foods than supermarkets or grocery stores. Predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods tend to have fewer full-service supermarkets than predominantly white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods, according to research from the USDA.

How much does the US government spend fighting food insecurity?

In 2020, the US government spent $89.3 billion dollars on SNAP, WIC, and NSLP.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 helped fund USDA’s nutrition assistance programs, extending a 15% increase in SNAP benefits. The act provided an estimated $3.5 billion to households experiencing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the USDA. The program ended in September 2021.

To track the key metrics of America’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, visit the COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Hub.

Read more on US government spending and food insecurity. Get the data directly in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter.