Two upcoming legislative opportunities would allow Congress to take meaningful action to build a food system that is more affordable, accessible, and resilient. In 2022, Congress is due to reauthorize the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC),9which authorizes all the federal child nutrition programs that reach millions of children and their families every day. In 2023, Congress is set to reauthorize the Farm Bill, which includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP is the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, supplementing the food budget of vulnerable families so they can purchase healthy food and move toward self-sufficiency. And, as stated above, the upcoming White House conference offers an unprecedented opportunity to discuss a whole-of-government, cross-sectoral approach to reforming food systems and eliminating hunger.
Hunger’s impact on poverty and economic growth
Hunger plays a pivotal role in how economies function and thrive. When individuals, families, and their children are hungry, they struggle with high levels of toxic stress and have little bandwidth to do much more than meet their basic needs.10Food-insecure adults and children have higher rates of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and are at high risk for chronic diseases.11Hungry children are sick more often and can suffer from physical, developmental, and cognitive impairments, resulting in lower academic achievement than that of their peers.12In short, hunger weakens individuals and families; impairs their ability to reach their full potential; and creates a drag on the economy in the long term through increased health care costs, increased reliance on government programs, and high levels of economic precarity.13And the burden of hunger and food insecurity falls most heavily on low-income people, rural communities, people of color, women, children, older adults, and disabled people. Families with children, especially single-parent families, are also more likely to face hunger.
Fortunately, the United States has tools to address hunger. The USDA has a range of hunger and nutrition programs designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and underserved, including infants and toddlers in child care, school-aged children, mothers and their infants, older adults, people with disabilities, Native communities, rural communities, and more.14The main goal of the USDA’s food programs is to improve access to nutritious foods and reduce food insecurity.15Furthermore, the agency’s food and nutrition programs can also help in reducing the hardship of poverty. When low-income and working Americans receive federal food and nutrition benefits, they can use money from their food budget for other necessities, including housing, child care, utilities, and transportation. This can help individuals and families become more financially stable.
Yet the USDA still has room to improve access and service delivery to meet the needs of all people. Its programs have limitations; they target the consequences of hunger, rather than its root causes. Policymakers must do more to confront the choices that have led to poverty and food insecurity in the United States.
The root causes of hunger are the policy choices that prioritize profits over people
America’s hunger crisis is not due to a lack of food production or scarcity in food supply.16Rather, hunger and food insecurity in the United States are symptoms of policy choices and an economic system that prioritizes the needs of corporations and the wealthy over those of the general population.17Across the nation, households experience hunger due to a combination of factors, including limited income from jobs that pay less than living wages; underemployment or unemployment, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic; few economic opportunities within communities; low rates of educational attainment; the nation’s history of discrimination based on race, gender, and disability; and more.18Millions of Americans who work full time or even at multiple jobs still find themselves in poverty due to low wages, unstable work schedules, and the high costs of child care, housing, education, transportation, and health care. Furthermore, policy choices that underfund state safety net programs or require individuals and families to jump through burdensome hoops to prove need have weakened the effectiveness of food safety net programs, resulting in a hunger crisis that is unprecedented in any peer industrial nation.19For example, to reload WIC benefits, some states require participants to mail in their benefit cards or travel to local offices every few months. In part because it was unsafe for many people to engage in such travel at the height of the pandemic, WIC saw a 9.3 percent decline from March 2020 to January 2021 despite increasing rates of child hunger.20
As federal nutrition programs alone cannot eliminate hunger, policies that focus on reducing poverty are essential. At the federal, state, and local levels, broad-based solutions that address poverty—such as increasing the federal minimum wage; offering workers paid family and medical leave and health care benefits;23and providing affordable housing and transportation as well as quality child care and educational settings—are necessary to help individuals and families build financial stability and meet their needs. Employers, too, can play a crucial role in increasing economic stability through workplace strategies, including by offering living wages, flexible schedules and paid leave, and affordable higher education and other opportunities for upward mobility. Research shows that more than half of food-insecure adults would experience a major positive impact on their household finances if they had access to higher-quality jobs.24As Stormy Johnson of West Virginia said, “Let’s change our programs to help those who are … working poor. We need programs to help people keep their heads above water.”25
In addition, income supplement or cash assistance programs can go a long way toward helping low-income Americans increase labor force participation, build economic security, and better manage their family’s needs.26Consider the child tax credit (CTC), a program designed to help taxpayers with children support their families. The CTC was greatly expanded under the Biden administration’sAmerican Rescue Plan (ARP); it was made fully refundable, and full benefits were extended to approximately 27 million low-income children and children of color who would have otherwise received a partial benefit or none at all.27The ARP also increased the credit amount and distributed benefits on a monthly—rather than yearly—basis to help families meet ongoing needs. When the federal government began to distribute monthly CTC payments in July 2021, child poverty and food insufficiency among families with children dropped dramatically and immediately. The expanded CTC reduced monthly child poverty by almost 30 percent, and in December 2021, it reached 61.2 million children, keeping 3.7 million children out of poverty.28
Millions of parents used their CTC payments to meet their families’ basic needs, including by using the credit for their food budgets, which helped decrease food insecurity by 26 percent in eligible households.29Yet despite the proven success of the expanded CTC, the monthly payments ended in December 2021 as the ARP’s temporary expansions expired. According to a May 2022 survey of 500 parents conducted by Parents Together Action, nearly half of respondents who received monthly CTC checks now say they cannot afford enough food to feed their families.30Javona Brownlee, a single mother of three from Virginia, understands this struggle. She is currently experiencing homelessness after losing her apartment because of black mold. As Javona explains, “The child tax credit helped a lot with groceries. When I was getting the CTC, it was definitely making a difference. I want the government to bring that [income support] back. I could really use that not just for groceries.”31
I’m kind of back to the situation I had before the monthly child tax credit, which was not eating so that my kids can eat, especially with the increasing cost of everything these days. The little bit of money I had left for food and gas after paying for everything else is now even less. Unfortunately, I’ve been having digestive and stomach issues recently, and I wonder if that’s connected to not eating. But if doing that means my kids can eat, I will do that every time.
A permanent, fully refundable CTC would improve the well-being and prospects of all American children and is one of the best anti-poverty investments the United States could make. Strengthening income support programs gives parents more financial stability and allows them to better manage their food budgets and meet the food and nutritional needs of their loved ones. An expanded earned income tax credit (EITC) and housing assistance are also critical means of support that can ensure stability and safety while individuals and families build financial security.32
Create more accessible and affordable food production and distribution systems
The Biden administration’s actions in 2021 did not eliminate hunger, but they certainly helped prevent severe hunger and food insecurity for millions of people.33Still, as the USDA points out, food assistance programs do not reach all populations equally.34Households with children, for example, are twice as likely to experience food insecurity as households without children. In 2020, Black and Hispanic Americans were 3.2 times and 2.5 times more likely, respectively, to be food insecure than white households.35
Southern states experience higher hunger rates than northern states, on average,36mostly due to deliberate policy choices that have weakened their safety nets and suppressed wages.37Rural households are more likely than urban ones to face food insecurity and lack access to food in their communities.38And disabled adults faced food insecurity at more than twice the rate of their nondisabled counterparts in 2020, with non-working disabled adults three times more likely to be food insecure than nondisabled adults.39
Food deserts are regions in which people have limited access to healthy, affordable food. The USDA defines food deserts as low-income census tracts where at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, live more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store in an urban area or more than 10 miles from a grocery store in a rural area. Food deserts result from disinvestment, underinvestment, and historical exclusion of marginalized communities.40These inequities exist in rural,41Indigenous,42and urban43areas, all of which have unique characteristics that policymakers must address in order to promote access to affordable and culturally relevant foods. Estimates indicate that 18.8 million people, or 6.1 percent of the U.S. population, reside in a food desert,44putting them at great risk of diet-related health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Consider this: A family that uses SNAP assistance must drive 25 to 30 miles to the nearest Walmart for their food and grocery needs. They require not only access to a car but also money for gas and time for the trip itself. Low-wage workers, many of whom rely on SNAP, work in poor conditions, marked by inconsistent hours and the inability to schedule their shifts in advance.45These barriers only compound for marginalized groups, such as single mothers of color who are less likely to have access to child care46or disabled people who may be unable to drive, use public transportation, or transport groceries.
For the U.S. food and nutrition systems to work effectively to eliminate hunger and food insecurity, they need a strong and diverse distribution network that considers the unique needs of different communities, individuals, and families. People need access to grocery stores in their communities and within their neighborhoods. They need cars or affordable and accessible transportation that enables them to bring groceries home. They need jobs with livable wages, benefits, and consistent hours so that they can meet their families’ food and nutritional needs more effectively. People with disabilities need access to services such as online ordering and grocery delivery; as parent Deanna Branch told the authors, “I can have groceries delivered to my door through an app. And we can get fresh, quality food delivered to our door. I like that I don’t necessarily have to go out and go shopping, especially with my disability now.”47
Due to the failures of the food system, individuals and families across the nation must rely on local nonprofits, food banks, and other charitable entities to meet their food needs. The spike in food insecurity during the pandemic increased reliance on food banks and pantries to supplement family food budgets and federal benefits that fell short of need.48But as food costs have increased by more than 10 percent in the past 12 months,49food banks, too, have struggled to maintain the increased demand for food supplies,50while taxing resources needed to cover the increased costs of refrigeration, vehicle maintenance, gas costs, and staff capacity. Reliance on food banks also sometimes means that people cannot get appropriate food, including food that is allergen free or that meets a specific nutritional need.
Lifting communities out of poverty is a long-term solution to food insecurity, but alleviating barriers to food access is the next step to achieving a community-based food system where communities develop their own foodways that are self-sustaining and less vulnerable to societal shocks. Strategies to take this step include:
- Pass financing initiatives or zoning regulation changes to incentivize building supermarkets and local grocery stores in food deserts and underserved areas, similar to the S. Department of Treasury’s New Markets Tax Credit Program or a range of local policies around zoning.51
- Create food hubs by partnering with schools, community colleges, hotels, and other food-related businesses that can act as community food kitchens to provide storage and distribution capacity in communities that lack such infrastructure.
- Incentivize food companies to sell to smaller, local grocers in addition to supermarket chains and corporations.
- Connect federal food programs with local family farms, community gardens, and community-supported agriculture to provide fresh vegetables and fruits to individuals in food deserts.
- Incentivize local grocers to accept food benefits such as SNAP, WIC, and others.
- Pass a universal free school meals program so that all school-aged children have access to food.
- Enable eligible participants to use their SNAP and WIC funds for online grocery delivery to make food more easily accessible.
Strengthen government safety net programs to make them more responsive
Strong safety net programs reduce poverty and hunger, improve health, increase economic mobility, and strengthen the national economy. These programs are intended to protect individuals and families from the effect of economic shocks, natural disasters, and other emergencies. Low-income and working people frequently turn to SNAP and WIC when grappling with hunger and food insecurity caused by job loss, underemployment, low wage employment, pregnancy, or other life events that necessitate additional support to weather economic precarity.52Such programs can be essential for low-income parents such as Deanna Branch, who attests to WIC’s lifesaving impact on her life: “When I was pregnant and a breastfeeding mom, [WIC] had so many nutritious foods available. A healthy pregnancy takes a lot of healthy nutritious foods. And it’s hard to find what to eat when breastfeeding. WIC really looked out for me … WIC really saved my life.”53
SNAP, WIC, and other food programs also spur the economy. Every dollar in new SNAP benefits resulted in $1.74 in economic activity during the last recession. Eligible beneficiaries get $56 in value from every $1 the government spends on SNAP benefits. This money is immediately spent in local communities with around 80 percent of benefits redeemed within two weeks, and 97 percent spent within a month.54Despite the clear return on investment and the necessity of food security for survival, SNAP and other food safety net programs have not been comprehensively modernized in decades. The country’s outdated food safety net has resulted in a huge failure to get food to those in need during this crisis.
Even in good economic times, the nation’s fragmented safety net fails to serve all low-income individuals and families equally.55As mother Javona Brownlee puts it: “I receive food stamps [SNAP benefits], but sometimes I still have to go to the food bank … The food stamps are not enough to feed my family, especially with them being out of school [during the summer] and having to feed them three plus meals a day. I’m going to the food bank at least one a month.”56
Safety net programs, including SNAP and WIC, frequently come under threat of reduced funding and expanded eligibility requirements—such as additional, punitive work requirements or the restriction of personal choice in the kinds of foods people can buy with their benefits—especially when conservative policymakers propose budget cuts to safety net programs in order to offset tax cuts for the wealthy or other spending priorities. Former President Donald Trump’s FY 2021 budget, for example, proposed more than $180 billion in cuts to SNAP, a nearly 30 percent reduction to the program over 10 years,57that underscored decades of attempts by conservative Republican leaders in Congress to restrict access to food assistance.
Not surprisingly, weakening safety net programs undermines their efficacy. SNAP, for example, is an automatic stabilizer and is available to individuals and families who are struggling with unemployment or temporary economic precarity.58But even before the pandemic, SNAP benefits fell short of meeting a family’s typical needs; in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, they averaged less than $1.40 per person, per meal, severely underestimating the cost of a healthy diet.59Furthermore, unlike other safety net programs, the maximum SNAP benefit amounts are fixed across the United States, despite regional differences in food costs. As a result, the maximum SNAP benefit per meal does not cover the average cost of a modestly priced meal in most regions of the country. Even when the USDA updated the SNAP benefit amounts in October 2021, the maximum benefit amount still fell short of the cost of meals in 21 percent of U.S. counties.60
The Biden administration and the USDA addressed this shortcoming in pandemic-related legislation, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and American Rescue Plan Act, which temporarily removed barriers to receiving food assistance.61The administration also reevaluated SNAP benefits to account for inflation and family needs, modernizing the program and increasing benefits by about 25 percent—an average of $36.24 per person each month, or $1.19 per day.62This change represents the single-largest permanent increase in benefits in SNAP’s history, but it still does not provide adequate support to all who need it.63Receiving more food assistance through SNAP or other food programs allows households to use their limited food budgets to meet other basic needs such as rent, utilities, child care, and more.64But as many of the temporary pandemic-related safety net expansions—such as unemployment insurance and the eviction moratorium—expired in the last year,65low-income Americans again struggled to make ends meet. This further demonstrates the need for a robust and responsive safety net.66
The federal government should expand and strengthen existing safety net programs by addressing gaps in access and making them more responsive to emergencies. Additional strategies to modernize food and hunger-related programs are discussed below.
Provide maximum access to federal food programs
Expanded access would give everyone, especially the most vulnerable, access to food and nutrition during times of emergencies or economic precarity. Policymakers should expand the emergency flexibilities—such as online enrollment and grocery access—included in pandemic-related legislation to ensure better access to program benefits. Furthermore, policymakers should codify a “no wrong door” approach.67for struggling residents to provide them with cash, food, and housing assistance as needed, link their eligibility to multiple benefit programs, and provide an authentic safety net. They should also incentivize collaboration and coordination between key government agencies to ensure that individuals and families struggling with economic precarity can quickly access the food benefits they need to stabilize their lives. Finally, the federal government should work alongside state and local government agencies and nonprofits to expand and improve participation in food, nutritional, and other government support programs.
Tailor SNAP and WIC benefits to where families live
Tailoring benefits would stabilize families’ access to food and give them more purchasing power to stretch their food budgets. States should provide people with more flexibility to access a wider range of food and nutrition products that meet familial and cultural needs. States should also expand benefits to low-income immigrants, students, Puerto Ricans, and citizens in other U.S. territories,68as well as enable eligible participants to use their SNAP dollars for online grocery delivery. Finally, policymakers should raise the WIC age limit for children from age 5 to age 6, to eliminate the gap in eligibility between WIC and being old enough to go to school, where children will receive school meals.
Focus on equity
The use of an equity lens when considering solutions would ensure that communities of color, single parents, older adults, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, college students, and residents of rural communities have access to affordable food and nutrition within their communities or along close and accessible transportation routes. Furthermore, federal and state policymakers should incentivize improved data collection and sharing across all programs that serve children and their parents or caregivers living in poverty to ensure that resources reach the most at-need populations.
Strengthen food and nutrition infrastructure
Policymakers should invest in food delivery services, food banks, mobile food pantries, and community-based food distribution sites such as schools and health centers. They should also incentivize stronger collaboration between federal, state, and local governments and private and nonprofit partners to build a wider, more resilient infrastructure for the provision of food and nutrition benefits. Additionally, federal and state policymakers should focus on updating their benefit infrastructure to ensure that participants have simplified access to enrollment and benefits, which will not only ease administrative oversight on case workers but also save costs through increased efficiencies.
Reduce administrative burdens that make accessing food programs so cumbersome
The federal and state governments must eliminate work requirements and asset limits, ease ID requirements, and reduce verification requests so that participants can access programs and benefits more easily, especially when they are dealing with economic precarity or a crisis in their life that necessitates reliance on benefits in the first place. The federal government should also incentivize collaboration and coordination with other relevant government agencies to streamline eligibility for, enrollment in, and access to benefits programs, especially during emergencies or when people need help stabilizing their lives. Finally, the federal government should waive time limits on how long people can receive benefits and expand eligibility during emergencies and climate-related events—such as flooding or wildfires—to ensure that no one goes hungry while trying to rebuild their life.
Strengthen coordination between the private, nonprofit, and public sectors
States and localities must expand and improve participation in federal nutrition programs to include all who need them by expanding food distribution, reducing food waste, and providing more accommodations, such as access to hot, prepared foods and beverages or online grocery ordering.
Address the impacts of climate change and improve market competition
Providing equitable and long-term access to food also requires a production system that is resilient and innovative in the face of future changes. This means adapting food production to meet the realities of a changing climate, a reduced dependence on fossil fuels in production and transportation, and a reversal of trends toward consolidation across the sector.
While the increases in overall agricultural production over the past half century are impressive, maintaining food availability in the face of a changing climate presents significant challenges. Food prices have risen over the past year due to climate change-driven droughts,69climbing input prices,70and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.71These price fluctuations are felt most acutely by food-insecure households.
Achieving national commitments to reduce emissions and address climate change would have significant implications for maintaining food security. There are also sector-specific opportunities to decouple current levels of food production from fossil fuel-derived inputs and make production systems more resilient to climate change. The agriculture sector is responsible for approximately 10 percent of annual emissions in the United States, and agricultural land also has the potential to sequester atmospheric carbon. Strategies that would make the food system more resilient to climate change and resilient to fossil fuel-driven price fluctuations include investing in decarbonization throughout the food production system—including inputs, harvesting, processing, and distribution—and offering technical assistance and incentives to agricultural producers that scale up climate-smart agricultural practices and conservation and restoration of nature to increase long-term sequestration and storage of carbon.
In addition to climate change affecting food prices and availability, the rising cost of food is due in part to competitive conditions at various steps of the food production and distribution process. When there is healthy competition in the market, prices tend to be lower. When competition is limited, however, prices can rise. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of limited competition in the food supply chain. The U.S. meat processing industry, for example, is dominated by four large corporations that supply 55 to 85 percent of all beef, pork, and poultry consumed in the United States. In 2021, during the height of the pandemic, supply chain issues resulted in shortages across the country, and these corporations responded by dramatically increasing their price-cost margins—raising prices more rapidly than costs to take advantage of demand and increasing their profits accordingly.72This occurred even as millions of people were struggling to put food on their tables.
Headline-generating shortages of infant formula have also illustrated the risks of highly concentrated supply. Since a single manufacturing plant that provided the bulk of specialty and infant formulas was shut down in February 2022, parents and caregivers across the country have faced severe shortages and price gouging while seeking a vital necessity.73