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Project Bread SNAP Trainer: A Resource for Agencies

A curriculum for connecting low income families with healthy food

2: Understanding food insecurity and the SNAP solution

2.1 What is food insecurity?


More than 50 million people in this country lack healthy food. Open this section to learn more about food insecurity.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the phrase "food insecurity" to describe households which may or may not have the resources to meet the food needs of their members.

In 2009, according to the USDA's research arm, Economic Research Service (ERS), nearly 15% of households were food insecure.

Visit the USDA ERS research site at for more information about food insecurity.

2.2 How do we define food insecurity?


Food insecurity is an economic issue measured by the US Government, as well as by state and non profit organizations. Open this section to learn about the levels of food insecurity in the US and in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In the United States, hunger is measured and defined in terms of food security and insecurity. Food insecurity is an economic indicator measured annually by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA categorizes household food security from high to very low food security.

High food security levels
High food security households have no problems accessing adequate food. Marginal food security households have problems or anxiety at times about accessing food but still maintain adequate quality, variety, and quantity of food.

These two categories make up about 85% of U.S. households and are considered "food secure."

Low food security levels
Low food security households have reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their food, but they are still able to eat enough. In very low food security households one or more members are eating a reduced quantity due to lack of money and other resources.

These two categories make up about 15% of U.S. households - representing approximately 50 million people - and are considered "food insecure."

Child food insecurity
In addition, when children are forced to reduce their meal size, skip a meal, or go without food for a full day or more, we see child food insecurity. According to Children's Health Watch, in 2008, 16.7 million children in the U.S. were food insecure.

For these children, lack of food is not merely uncomfortable; it is also dangerous.

According to Children's Health Watch, infants and toddlers in food insecure households are 30% more likely to have a history of hospitalization, 90% more likely to be reported in fair or poor health, twice as likely to have iron deficiency anemia, and 66% more likely to be at risk for developmental delays.

Poorly fed children do not learn as well in school and are more prone toward obesity and associated health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Visit Children's Health Watch at for more information about child food insecurity.

Elder food insecurity
Food insecure seniors face added risks.

When seniors go hungry, they are more likely to be hospitalized and to have chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Commonwealth of Massachusetts food insecurity
Every year, Project Bread publishes a Status Report on Hunger. The 2010 report noted that 660,000 people in the Commonwealth are struggling to put food on the table. This represents an increase of nearly 20 percent since 2009.

It also reported that 206,172 households -- that's 8.3 percent of all Massachusetts households -- were food insecure.

Nearly half of those food insecure households fall into the very low food security category.

For more information, see Project Bread's 2010 Status Report on Hunger at

2.3 How do we address food insecurity?


One way you and your agency can help people address food insecurity is by promoting the federal nutrition programs, such as School Meals, Summer Meals, After School Meals, WIC, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Open this section to learn more about SNAP.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the USDA, helps people stretch their food budgets and buy healthy food.

Once known as food stamps, this program has been proven over time to be a concrete tool for helping households maintain food security.

Your clients may use SNAP benefits to purchase food at grocery stores, convenience stores, and some farmers' markets and co-op food programs.

2.4 Where did SNAP come from?


SNAP is a federal nutrition program with roots in the Great Depression. In 2009, it helped more than 31 million people eat better. Open this section to understand the roots of SNAP.

SNAP traces its earliest origins back to the Food Stamp Plan, which began in 1939 to help needy families in the Depression era.

The modern program was authorized as a permanent program in 1964 and expanded most dramatically after 1974, when Congress required all States to offer food stamps to low-income households.

In 1977, U.S. Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern created landmark legislation that set up the program in much the way we see it today.

The 2008 Farm Bill renamed the program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to better represent the focus on nutrition and putting healthy food within a household's reach.

2.5 How does SNAP work?


People struggling with food insecurity can apply for SNAP benefits and use them to purchase healthy food for their household. Open this section to get an overview of how SNAP works.

SNAP provides low-income households with benefits they can spend at most grocery stores for food.

There are no paper stamps - households receive an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that looks and works like a debit card and is electronically loaded with food credits.

The USDA, through the Food and Nutrition Service, administers the program at the national level. In Massachusetts, the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) administers SNAP.

Locations that accept SNAP credits
Most grocery stores and convenience stores, as well as some farmers' markets and co-op food programs, accept SNAP benefits for payment.

What SNAP buys
Households use SNAP benefits to buy food for the household to eat, including:

  • Breads and cereals
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meats, fish and poultry
  • Dairy products

They can also buy seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat.

What SNAP does not buy
Households cannot use SNAP to buy:

  • Beer, wine, or liquor
  • Cigarettes or tobacco

Households cannot use SNAP to buy any nonfood items, such as:

  • Soaps
  • Paper products
  • Household supplies
  • Pet food

Other ineligible items include:

  • Vitamins and medicines
  • Food that will be eaten in the store
  • Hot prepared foods, such as rotisserie chicken

2.6 Who can use SNAP?


People of all ages and households of all configurations use SNAP. Open this section to learn more about people who can benefit from the program.

SNAP reaches a wide range of people.

  • People of all ages use SNAP. Children, adults, and elders can all qualify for benefits;
  • People of all household types use SNAP. Families, couples, and individuals can all qualify for benefits;
  • People of all backgrounds use SNAP. Both U.S. citizens and non-citizens can qualify for benefits;
  • People who are working or have other regular income, such as Social Security or a pension, can often get SNAP;
  • People who are unemployed or disabled can qualify for benefits;
  • People in all living situations use SNAP. Homeowners, renters, and homeless people can all qualify for benefits.

In order to get SNAP benefits, applicants must meet eligibility guidelines which are based on the household composition, household size, and a combination of expenses and income. A person doesn't need to be unemployed or receiving Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) in order to qualify for SNAP. The household situation just has to meet the program guidelines.

SNAP Trainer Sitemap

The SNAP Trainer: A Resource for Agencies is a curriculum for connecting low income families with healthy food. Each chapter is accessible as a "Section". The sections are: