veggies in school lunch line

USDA food program costs down 2%

Improved economy and lower unemployment rate, paired with slower increase in food prices, keeps price tag of nutrition programs lower.

Spending for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 15 domestic food and nutrition programs totaled $101.9 billion in fiscal 2016, 2% less than the previous fiscal year. This was nearly 7% lower than the historical high of $109.2 billion set in fiscal 2013, according to "The Food Assistance Landscape: FY2016 Annual Report," a new report from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

At some point during the year, about one in four Americans participates in one or more of 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs that provide children and needy families with better access to food and a more healthful diet, report author Victor Oliveira explained. These programs also represent a significant federal investment, accounting for more than two-thirds of USDA’s outlays.

The report used preliminary data from USDA's Food & Nutrition Service to examine trends in U.S. food and nutrition assistance programs through fiscal 2016 (Oct. 1, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2016) and ERS data to examine trends in the prevalence and severity of household food insecurity in the U.S. through 2015.

An estimated 12.7% of U.S. households (or 15.8 million households containing 42.2 million people) were food insecure at least some time in 2015, significantly less than in 2014. Fifty-nine percent of food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest food and nutri­tion assistance programs in the month prior to the survey.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly the food stamp program — accounted for 69% of all federal food and nutrition assistance spending in fiscal 2016. An average 44.2 million people per month participated in the program, 3% fewer than the previous year.

This marked the third consecutive year that participation decreased, after increasing in 12 of the previous 13 years. “The decrease in 2016 was likely due, in part, to the country’s continued economic growth as well as the reinstatement in many states of the time limit — three months of SNAP within any three-year period — on participation for able-bodied adults without dependents,” the report noted.

Per-person benefits averaged $125.51 per month, 1% less than the previous fiscal year and 6% less than the historical high of $133.85 set in fiscal 2011. The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus act, temporarily increased benefit levels in SNAP from April 2009 to November 2013.

Reflecting both the decrease in participation and the decrease in average benefits, federal spending for SNAP totaled $70.8 billion, 4% less than the previous fiscal year and 11% less than the historical high of $79.9 billion set in fiscal 2013.

An average of 7.7 million people per month participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC) in fiscal 2016, 4% less than the previous year. This was the sixth consecutive year that participation fell. 

“Although improving economic conditions have reduced the demand for WIC in recent years, another likely factor in the decrease in the number of WIC participants since (fiscal year) 2010 is the decline in the number of births in the United States,” the report added.

Daily participation in the National School Lunch Program averaged 30.3 million students in fiscal 2016, about the same as the previous year. Free lunches comprised two-thirds (66%) of all lunches served, reduced-price lunches comprised 7% and full-price lunches comprised 27%.

Spending for the National School Lunch Program totaled $13.5 billion, 4% more than in the previous fiscal year. This increase in expenditures reflected, at least in part, the percentage increase in free meals (which are more heavily subsidized) claimed in the program. Federal reimbursement rates for school lunches (and breakfasts) in school year 2015-16 were higher than the previous school year due to an increase in the Consumer Price Index for food away from home (reimbursement rates for school meals are adjusted annually for inflation).

An average of 14.5 million children participated in the School Breakfast Program each school day, 3% more than the previous fiscal year. Free breakfasts comprised almost four-fifths (79%) of all breakfasts served, reduced-price breakfasts comprised 6% and full-price breakfasts comprised 15%.

Spending totaled $4.2 billion for the School Breakfast Program, 7% more than in the previous year, making it the fastest growing of all the major food assistance programs in terms of expenditures.

A total of almost 2.1 billion meals were served through the Child & Adult Care Food Program, 3% more than in the previous year.

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