In the United States, as in most developed countries, a number of services and programs exist to help those who are in need due to age, illness, poverty or adverse circumstances. This is often not the case in less-developed countries, where individuals and communities experience hardships due to a lack of social, health, and welfare services. In the United States, private charitable organizations, churches, and the government assist in providing what is often called a “safety net” of services, including nutrition or food services, to prevent or reduce deprivation for individuals and communities. The nutrition programs that have the greatest impact are those supported by the government, and in most cases the federal government provides resources to states through various funding methods.
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established in 1969. The purpose of this agency is to: (1) make food assistance available to the needy, (2) improve the eating habits of children, and (3) assist with the distribution of surplus foods, thereby stabilizing farm prices. A number of programs exist to achieve these goals.
National School Lunch Program.
The U.S. Congress established the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 1946 to safeguard the health and well-being of children and encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities. Participating schools in all the states receive cash subsidies and free commodities from the USDA. Schools and residential child-care institutions are responsible for providing lunches that meet specific nutritional standards. Students are eligible to receive lunches free or at a reduced price depending on their family’s income (some pay full price). Though based on the rationale that a child cannot learn if he or she is hungry, in recent years there have been more concerns with the possible overconsumption of some nutrients, particularly fat. Some evaluations have suggested that school lunches may not be as healthy as they could be.
School Breakfast Program.
This program was established as a permanent program for public and nonprofit private schools in 1975. The School Breakfast Program (SBP) helps states to provide a free or reduced-price nutritious breakfast to students in participating schools. Breakfasts may be hot or cold, but they must meet exact standards, provide specific foods, and meet one-fourth of the RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances) over time. Eligibility requirements are similar to the NSLP.
Summer Food Service Program for Children.
During school vacations, eligible children are able to receive meals and snacks under this program. Community agencies, nonprofit organizations, governmental units, recreational facilities, and summer camps are allowed to sponsor this program in communities where 50 percent or more of the children are from households that are at or below 185 percent of the poverty level. This nutrition program was established in 1975.
Special Milk Program.
Since 1966 this program has been available to provide cash reimbursement for each half-pint of milk provided to students in schools not participating in the National School Lunch Program. The purpose is to encourage the consumption of milk. Children are eligible to participate regardless of income.
The Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC).
This program provides, at no cost, assistance to purchase supplemental nutritious foods, nutrition education, and referrals to other agencies. Pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under five years of age who meet specific health risk and income requirements are eligible to participate. The WIC Farmers Market, where available, allows participants to acquire fresh produce. WIC was authorized in 1972 and has proven to be cost-effective in reducing and preventing problems such as anemia and poor birth outcomes in the populations served.
Food Stamp Program.
The purpose of the Food Stamp Program, established in 1977, is to improve the diets of people with low incomes. Assistance is provided, through food stamps, for purchasing foods. Recently, more efforts have been made to also provide some nutrition education.
Commodity Supplemental Food Program.
Since 1973 this program has provided direct food distribution to persons over sixty years old, and to lower income people, in some states. Specific foods are provided to meet participants’ nutritional needs. Persons participating in WIC are not eligible for this program.
A variety of community nutrition programs receive aid from the federal government. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes food surpluses to charitable institutions, which then provide the food to people in need. A variety of community nutrition programs receive aid from the federal government. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes food surpluses to charitable institutions, which then provide the food to people in need.
Separate USDA programs also exist for providing commodities and surplus foods to charitable institutions, child- and adult-care programs, Indian reservations, and for temporary emergency food assistance. Other USDA programs, such as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program and the Nutrition and Education Training Program, exist to increase nutrition knowledge and skills.
Another agency that plays a major role in meeting community nutrition needs is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which oversees a number of nutrition programs.
Nutrition Program for Older Americans.
Funds are given to state agencies on aging to coordinate a variety of services for the elderly, including congregate and home-delivered meals. A nutritious lunch, nutrition education, opportunities for social interaction, referral, and transportation assistance are provided. Meals are free, but participants may make a voluntary contribution. All persons over sixty years old, and their spouses (of any age), may participate, and income is not a factor for eligibility. This program was authorized in 1965.
Head Start Program.
Officially established in 1967, Head Start provides education, nutrition, and social and health services to participants. Specifically, nutritious meals, snacks, nutrition assessment, and nutrition education are provided to children and parents. To be eligible, children must be three to five years old and from a lower-income family.
DHHS also provides funding for the Title V Maternal Child Health Program, which does provide some nutrition assessment and nutrition education to children, adolescents, and women of childbearing age. This program provides a variety of other health-related services and specific programs for special-needs children and for those at risk for physical or developmental disabilities. States determine how these federal funds will be used, so the program does vary depending on the state.
While many programs are available, nutrition-related diseases and hunger still exist as real problems for some Americans. There are many who fail to gain the available benefits due to a variety of barriers. For example, homeless people often lack transportation and are unable to provide the required documentation to access some services.
Government agencies provide the majority of nutrition programs, but many religious and charitable organizations also assist in meeting the huge needs. Catholic Charities, Meals on Wheels, and the American Heart Association are examples of nonprofit groups that put forth extensive efforts to feed those in need and educate the public on relevant food and nutrition-related issues.