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Published May 06, 2013, 10:18 AM

Food programs have full plate

For fiscal year 2012, about one-quarter of the U.S. population has benefitted from at least one of the USDA’s 15 food programs.

By: Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agweek

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Though the Dow Jones industrial average has topped its previous high reached in late 2007, the use of U.S. Department of Agriculture food assistance programs remains at high levels, partly because the on-ground economy has not fully recovered.

For fiscal year 2012, about one-quarter of the U.S. population has benefitted from at least one of the USDA’s 15 food programs.

The five major nutrition programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program are examined in “The Food Assistance Landscape FY 2012 Annual Report.”

The expenditures for these programs along with the 10 other food programs increased from $103.8 billion in fiscal year 2011 to $106.7 in fiscal year 2012.

The 2012 report notes that “USDA’s food and nutrition assistance programs form a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults, a role that is especially important when the economy falters and many Americans lose jobs and income.”

Business cycles

To analyze the relationship between economic cycles and individual nutrition programs, USDA looked at the four major business cycles that occurred from 1976 to 2010. Each business cycle consists of a “period of economic growth characterized by a falling unemployment rate and a period of economic decline characterized by a rising unemployment rate.

“The results of this study indicate that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as expected, is the nutrition assistance program that is most responsive to changes in economic conditions, with participation in the program clearly following the unemployment rate over the business cycle,” the report says.

Economic effect

The study shows, however, that the four other major nutrition assistance programs also are affected to some degree by economic conditions.

“For example, WIC caseloads appear to have become more responsive to economic conditions after the program became fully funded in the late 1990s (the number of births also had a strong influence on the number of participants).

“While economic conditions do not affect total participation in the child nutrition programs (National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program), they do appear to affect the proportion of participants receiving free or reduced-price meals. Thus, the other programs, such as SNAP, are “countercyclical, with their use by needy families increasing during economic downturns.”

From fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012, average monthly participation in SNAP increased by 4.3 percent from 44.7 million persons to 46.6 million persons, with total program expenditures increasing by 3.4 percent to $78.3 billion. SNAP benefits can be used to purchase any food product for home consumption excluding alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot food and any food sold for on-premises consumption.

Women, Infants, and Children, which served an average of 8.9 million people a month in fiscal year 2012, “helps safeguard the health of low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, as well as infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk by providing a package of supplemental foods, nutrition education, and health care referrals.”

About a quarter of the 8.9 million participants were women, one-quarter were infants and one half were children.

The average number of children participating in the school lunch program during any month declined slightly between the two fiscal years to 31.6 million. A total of 5.2 billion meals were served, with 59 percent of the participants receiving free meals and 9 percent receiving reduced-price meals.

Average monthly participation in the School Breakfast Program grew by 5.4 percent to 12.8 million children.

“New nutrition standards for school meals reflecting the latest nutrition science began to be phased in during school year 2012,” the report states. Schools were required to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fats in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.

These improvements are expected to enhance the diet and health of school children and to help mitigate the childhood obesity trend.”

The Child and Adult Care Food Program subsidizes healthy meals and snacks in participating childcare centers and homes and adult day care facilities. Care providers are reimbursed for each type of qualifying meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack) they serve. During fiscal 2012, a total of 1.9 billion meals were served.”

Editor’s Note: Ray is director of the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. Schaffer is a research assistant professor at APAC.