The Transformation Of The Food Stamp Program

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The Transformation of the Food Stamp Program

The Transformation of the Food Stamp Program


The Food Stamp Program has been described as “the cornerstone of the nation's nutrition safety net.” As members of the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals in the United States, registered dietitians need to be familiar with the Food Stamp Program to better serve the nation's poor. Some of the dietetic practice groups (DPG) through which American Dietetic Association members serve this target audience include the Nutrition Education for the Public DPG, the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG, and the Public Health/Community Nutrition DPG.


The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has several food assistance and nutrition programs. One of these programs, the Food Stamp Program, is unique in that it is an entitlement program. Anyone who meets eligibility guidelines based entirely on financial need can receive benefits. Other food assistance and nutrition programs are targeted at specific populations. For example, the National School Lunch Program includes only school-aged children. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children requires nutrition education and that participants evidence nutritional risk and is limited to infants and children younger than age 5 years and pre- and postpartum women.1

How is financial need for the Food Stamp Program determined? In 1963-1964, Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration used two resources to develop the first poverty thresholds. First was the USDA's 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey, which reported that families of three or more persons spent about one third of their after-tax money income on food. The second was the economy food plan, which was one of four food plans developed by USDA food and nutrition professionals.

This economy, or thrifty, meal plan constituted the most inexpensive, nutritionally adequate diets that were described as being “designed for temporary or emergency use when funds are low”. The USDA Economic Research Service evaluates market basket prices monthly and updates cost of food at four levels, which includes the thrifty meal plan. The US Census Bureau uses the thrifty meal plan information as a criterion to annually update the poverty thresholds by household (defined as a group of persons living together who purchase and prepare meals as a unit). In 2007, the poverty level for a household of four was $20,650.

To receive Food Stamp Program benefits, households must have gross and net incomes below 130% and 100% of the poverty threshold, respectively. For example, in fiscal year 2007, a family of four with a gross monthly income before taxes of $2,167 (net $1,667) could qualify for a maximum monthly allotment of $518. Households can have up to $2,000 in countable resources like a bank account and still be considered in need. If at least one person is aged 60 years or older, or is disabled, the household can have up to $3,000.2

Certain assets are not counted, such as a home and lot and the resources of people who receive Supplemental Security Income or benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ...
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