FULLY one of every four Americans, 25%, participated in at least one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 15 domestic food assistance programs last year, according to a USDA report for its 2012 fiscal year.
Indeed, more than 70% of the agency's annual budget goes to food assistance -- a total of $106.7 billion for the year, which ended Sept. 30, according to the report prepared by the Economic Research Service (ERS).
That was 3% more than the previous year, marking the 12th consecutive year in which food assistance expenditures increased, ERS said.
Economic and social conditions determine participation in and, therefore, spending on food assistance, ERS said, and changes in the U.S. economy significantly affect participation in the largest of the food programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
For instance, the number of SNAP recipients increases during recessions, when the number of people who are poor and unemployed increases, and decreases during periods of economic growth, ERS said.
The ERS report looks at the five largest programs:
1. SNAP. SNAP, the former food stamp program, is the largest of the USDA food assistance programs and accounted for 73% of all expenditures in fiscal 2012. It provides monthly benefits for eligible participants to buy food at authorized food stores.
An average of 46.6 million people per month participated in SNAP last year, the largest number ever and 4% more than the year before. Benefits averaged $133 per person per month.
USDA allocated a record-high $78.3 billion to the program, 3% more than the year before.
2. WIC. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC) provides benefits for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women -- as well as infants and children up to five years old who are considered to be at risk of poor nutrition -- by providing a package of supplemental foods, nutrition education and health care referrals.
An average of 8.9 million people per month participated in the program last year, slightly fewer than the year before. More than half -- 53% -- of the participants were children, 24% were women and 23% were infants.
Reflecting the continued decrease in U.S. births that began in 2008, the number of infants enrolled in the program decreased almost 2%, while the number of women and children decreased less than 1%. Last year marked the second straight year -- and only the second year in the history of the program -- that participation declined for all three groups.
3. School lunch. The National School Lunch Program provides lunches at low or no cost to needy school children, with participating schools receiving cash and food items from USDA.
Any child may enroll in the program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals, children from families with incomes between 130% and 185% of the guideline are eligible for reduced-price meals and children from families with incomes that exceed 185% of the guideline are required to pay full price, although their meals are still subsidized.
An average of 31.6 million students per school day participated in the program last year, about 1% fewer than the year before, marking the first decrease in participation since 1990.
A total of 5.2 billion meals were served. The number of free lunches increased slightly from 58% to 59%, and the number of reduced-price lunches increased from 8% to 9%.
USDA allocated $11.6 billion for the lunch program in 2012, 3% more than the year before.
4. School breakfast. The National School Breakfast Program provides free and low-priced breakfast for school children, with eligibility following the same guidelines as in the lunch program.
An average of 12.8 million students per school day participated in the program last year, 5% more than the year before.
Of the total breakfasts, 76% were free, while 8% were low-priced meals and 16% were full-priced meals.
USDA allocated $3.3 billion for the breakfast program in 2012, 8% more than the year before, making the breakfast program the fastest growing by expenditure of all of the department's food assistance programs.
5. Child/adult care. The Child & Adult Care Food Program subsidizes meals and snacks in participating child care centers and homes and adult day care facilities, with each participating care provider reimbursed for each kind of qualifying meal served, i.e., breakfast, lunch, supper or snack.
A total of 1.9 million meals or snacks were served last year, 1% more than the previous year. The number of meals served in both child care centers and adult day care centers increased 2%, while the number of meals served in home child care decreased 2%.
USDA spent $2.8 billion on this program last year, 4% more than the previous year.