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7 Food Assistance Programs to Feed Your Family When in Financial Need

According to a July 2020 analysis conducted by the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities (CBPP), the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sharp rise in hardship for many American families. Using data from the United States Census Bureau’s new experimental Weekly Household Pulse Survey and other sources, the CBPP found that 10.8% of adults in the U.S. reported that for the week ending July 7, 2020, their household didn’t get enough to eat within the last week.

Additionally, 10% to 19% of adults reported that their children sometimes or often didn’t get enough to eat in the past seven days. That means an estimated 8 to 15 million children live in households where they don’t get enough to eat.

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Right now, families are struggling to keep food on the table in nearly every corner of the country. So what do you do when you’ve tried every strategy to save money on food but still can’t make ends meet? That’s when it’s time to ask for help.

How to Get Financial Help to Buy Food

Many state and local agencies, charities, and religious organizations can provide you with food or financial assistance to buy food.

1. SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most extensive food assistance program in the U.S. According to the CBPP, 38 million people, or 12% of the population, relied on SNAP in 2019. Nationally, 43% of these families are employed, and 67% have children.

The government calculates SNAP benefits based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Thrifty Food Plan, which estimates how much it costs to meet basic nutritional guidelines each week. The USDA updates the costs monthly to reflect food price fluctuations. As of July 2020, the Thrifty Food Plan estimates that a family of four (two adults aged 19 to 50 and two children aged 6 to 8 and 9 to 11) need a weekly minimum of $156.10 to maintain a healthy diet.

Each state’s health and human services department runs SNAP, which means there are different eligibility requirements, asset thresholds, and application processes depending on where you live. Read through the USDA’s SNAP eligibility requirements to learn more about income and asset limits and the work requirements required for the program.

To apply for SNAP benefits, use the eligibility checker at Benefits.gov. This tool helps you determine if you’re eligible for the program. Next, visit the USDA’s SNAP State Directory of Resources page and click on the state where you live. You can also apply for SNAP at a local office.

You can also check out CBPP’s state-by-state guide to SNAP resources, including direct links to printable applications.

Most states require that you complete an eligibility interview once you send in your application. You can participate in the interview in person or over the phone. In most cases, it takes 30 days to process your application and determine eligibility. However, if you and your family are in dire financial straits and have less than $100 in liquid assets and $150 in monthly gross income, you might receive benefits in as few as seven days.

Families approved for SNAP receive an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card to help pay for food purchases. You can use this card at participating retailers and many farmers markets. The state government automatically loads your benefits onto your card each month. You can see when each state distributes benefits through the USDA’s State Directory of Resources. Click on your state, then the link for “Benefits Issuance Schedule.”

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2. WIC

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) is a food assistance program for pregnant and postpartum parents, infants, and children up to age 5. The program provides nutritional assistance to help them meet specific dietary guidelines necessary for healthy development.

WIC also gives you access to other services, including:

  • Health screenings
  • Nutrition and breastfeeding counseling
  • Immunization screening and referral
  • Substance abuse referral

Other caregivers, such as single non-birth parents, grandparents with custody of their children or grandchildren, and foster parents, can also apply to WIC. Although these adults don’t qualify for food assistance themselves, their children could still qualify for the program.

There are several eligibility requirements for WIC. You must be referred by a doctor, often through a WIC clinic, who determines whether you and your children are at nutritional risk.

You must also meet WIC income requirements, ranging from 100% to 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. For example, a family of four must earn an annual income of $26,200 or less to be eligible for full benefits.

The program is organized and run by your state’s social services agency, and you must apply for WIC to receive assistance. You can find a directory of state social service agencies at USA.gov. You can call your state’s WIC office directly and use the WIC prescreening tool to determine whether you and your family are eligible for benefits.

3. The National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally run meal program that operates out of public and private schools to provide children with healthy, low-cost, or free lunches. In 2016, 30.4 million children participated in the NSLP program.

Families eligible for free meals through the NSLP must have income between 100% and 130% of the federal poverty level or up to 185% of the federal poverty level for reduced-price meals. In August of 2020, that meant a family of four in Texas must have earned $34,060 or less to qualify for free meals and $48,470 or less for reduced-price meals. The federal poverty levels are adjusted each year by the Department of Health and Human Services. Alaska and Hawaii may have different poverty levels than the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia.

To apply for the NSLP, visit the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and select your state and “National School Lunch Program” from the drop-down menus.

Your child might also be categorically eligible if they’re already receiving benefits from another program, such as SNAP, or enrolled in Head Start or another state-funded pre-kindergarten program.

You can also apply for your child to get free meals during summer or when schools are closed. Use the USDA’s kid meal finder search tool to find programs in your area.

4. Food Pantries

A food pantry is a distribution center where families who need food assistance can pick up fresh, canned, and prepackaged foods.

Some food pantries are set up like a grocery store where you can shop for whatever you need. Other food pantries distribute whatever they have, which means you receive a box or several bags of food without the ability to choose what you get.

Some food pantries have their own location, while others run out of schools, churches, or community centers. There are even mobile food pantries that help deliver food to those without reliable transportation. Most operate on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s helpful to call ahead and find out when they open. You can also go early whenever possible. Many food pantries have experienced overwhelming demand and long lines due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic downturn.

Every food pantry has different eligibility requirements. Some provide free food to anyone, no questions asked, while others only serve those receiving SNAP benefits or some other form of state or federal assistance.

You can find a food pantry in your area through Why Hunger, FoodPantries.org, Ample Harvest, or Feeding America.

There is also a growing grass-roots movement called Little Free Pantry. The Little Free Pantry movement builds on the Little Free Library concept in which homeowners build tiny book-sharing cabinets in their front yards and encourage their neighbors to take a book or leave a book for others.

The Little Free Pantry movement works the same way, only homeowners are now setting up their own small food pantries and encouraging those in their community to take what they need and leave food to donate if they have extra. You can find a Little Free Pantry in your area with their interactive map. As of July 2020, there were over 1,167 Little Free Pantries around the U.S.

5. Soup Kitchens

Soup or meal kitchens serve free or low-cost hot meals to homeless people or those who need help feeding their families. Religious or community groups often run soup kitchens in low-income neighborhoods. Unlike a food pantry, which provides food recipients can cook at home, soup kitchens serve complete meals you can eat on-site in a cafeteria setting.

Although many religious organizations run soup kitchens in their places of worship, you don’t have to be a member to visit the soup kitchen. Most kitchens run by religious organizations don’t require you to have any religious beliefs at all. While some might ask that you listen or read a short doctrine on their mission or beliefs, most are happy to serve meals to their community with no strings attached.

You can find a soup kitchen in your area through the Homeless Shelter Directory. However, this database may not provide a complete listing of the assistance available in your community. That’s why it’s helpful to call local churches and other religious organizations to ask if they distribute food or host a soup kitchen. Start with large, well-organized religious organizations, as they’re more likely to have the staff and resources to run a community meal service. Your state’s department of social services can also help you find a local soup kitchen. You can find your state’s social service offices at USA.gov.

6. Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels is an organization that brings hot meals directly to seniors in need.

The Meals on Wheels program has become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic since many seniors who need food assistance can’t safely leave their homes to visit food banks or soup kitchens. According to an August 2020 survey, Meals on Wheels reports they’re serving an average of 77% more meals to 47% more seniors than they were in March 2020.

Housebound people aged 60 and older are eligible to apply to Meals on Wheels. If you, your parents, or grandparents meet those requirements and need food assistance, you can find a local participating chapter.

7. The 2-1-1 Program

A free and confidential program run by the United Way, 2-1-1’s goal is to help connect people in the U.S. to aid programs for their specific needs. It receives more than 2 million requests for food assistance each year.

The specialists at 2-1-1 can help direct you to a local soup kitchen, fill out an application for SNAP or WIC benefits, or find a local food pantry or meals-on-wheels program. To get connected, all you have to do is dial 2-1-1 from a cellphone or landline.


Final Word

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that a financial crisis can happen to anyone. People who earned a middle-class income are now standing in food lines next to those who earned a low hourly wage. Whether you’re struggling due to a job loss or reduction in hours, medical emergency, or any of a thousand other reasons, you’re not alone in needing help. And there’s no shame in asking when you do. These government and community programs are in place to provide a stepping stone for families that need one.

If you and your family are hungry right now, you can call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273) for directions in English and Spanish on how to get immediate help.  You can also text 97779 using a keyword such as “food” or “meals” to get a listing of those resources nearest you.

Chances are high that if you’re struggling to feed your family, you’re also struggling with other bills. There are plenty of resources to get emergency financial assistance for necessities like housing, medical care, utilities, and job training so you can get back on your feet.

Are you having trouble feeding your family? What resources are you using to make ends meet?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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