Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Harsh Reality: The Impact of the Government Shutdown on Food Assistance

Last week, in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law, we received a request for information about the impact of the government shutdown on women and children who rely on food assistance.  I asked Erin Shirl, an attorney in our Program, to reply.  The information that she reported was so important and so well researched, that I asked her to prepare it for Agricultural Law.  Erin's report follows, and her bio and contact information can be found at the conclusion of this post. 

Approximately 49 million Americans struggle with food insecurity. The most recently released USDA statistics place 7 million Americans in the "very low food security" tier; this means that "at times during the year, the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food." A frightening ninety-nine percent of those 7 million Americans reported that they worried food would be gone before they had money to buy more, even though many food insecure Americans participate in one or more federal food assistance programs, like SNAP, WIC, or the school lunch programs.

In the wake of our federal government's shutdown crisis, those 7 million Americans will have a more difficult time obtaining food, a problem USDA and the states are almost powerless to solve. Though national media outlets have attempted to profile this problem since the shutdown began, many news sources have frequently left out an important piece of the food assistance puzzle, federal Commodity Assistance Programs, which will lack funding entirely until the federal government finally resumes normal operations. This post attempts to fill that void by profiling some of the key food assistance programs jeopardized by the shutdown, briefly touching on the interplay between them, and explaining how and why they matter to their participants.

Commodity Assistance Programs (CAP)

Media coverage immediately after the shutdown focused on the potential loss of WIC funding while the federal government is out of business. WIC is undeniably a vital program for the 9 million food insecure Americans who depend on it.
Government Shutdown: 9 Million Moms and Babies at Risk (Forbes)
Government Shutdown Jeopardizes WIC Program (Huffington Post)
Shutdown threatens nutrition for mothers, children (CNN Money)
Poor moms fear loss of subsidized infant formula if government shutdown drags on (Washington Post)
WIC support for moms and babies threatened during shutdown (CBS News)

However, the Commodity Assistance Programs have been largely left out of the discussion in major media outlets. This is an unfortunate oversight: these programs and their participants are in a much more immediately dire situation.

Where WIC and SNAP provide food insecure Americans with checks, vouchers, or EBT cards to be used for the purchase of food, the programs that fall into the CAP category instead provide assistance more directly in the form of food packages. For Americans who live in remote or rural areas where SNAP and WIC vendors may not be available, the CAPs may be only source of food assistance from the government. These programs have been increasingly crucial in feeding Americans since the recession began. They have helped private and non-profit food banks restore dwindling food stocks, and they are instrumental in providing food aid to food insecure Americans.  Commodity Assistance Programs are all entirely without funding in the wake of the shutdown.

USDA's contingency plan for the shutdown expressly states, "[w]hile there would be some inventory
available for use in food packages, no carryover, contingency or other funds would be available to support continued operations."

The following summary profiles three critical programs impacted by the shutdown.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides non-perishable food to all fifty states based on each state's levels of low-income and unemployed citizens. In FY 2012, this program delivered 723 million pounds of food to the states to support hungry Americans. USDA, through Congressional appropriation, pays for all major costs associated with the program, including the processing, packing, and shipping of food to states. USDA also pays for some administrative costs.
USDA currently has no funds available to support any of those activities.  While the government's doors remain closed, there will be no more deliveries of food to states from TEFAP. What food remains in state inventories may be used in the interim, but for the many smaller food banks that rely heavily or exclusively on TEFAP products to feed their community members, a lengthy shutdown could mean closing their doors or delivering less food to their communities.

The largest feeding charity in America, Feeding America, supplies food to just under 80% of the country's food banks; TEFAP food went to 54% of Feeding America food banks in 2009. If TEFAP is not operational, this will put a strain on charitable organizations, and in turn, on hungry Americans.

Note that TEFAP-partnered food banks can help serve food insecure Americans who live in food deserts and cannot access vendors that might serve SNAP or WIC participants; USDA data suggest approximately one-fifth of TEFAP participants do not rely on any other federal food assistance program, and are more likely to live in very low food security in addition to confronting other problems of poverty, including homelessness and other material hardship. For the remaining four-fifths of TEFAP participants, TEFAP remains a vital source of food to supplement their diets when SNAP or WIC funds do not last through the month. However, without a supply of food from the federal government, it will become difficult, if not completely impossible, for local food banks to keep up. It is crucial that funding for this program be restored.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program  (CSFP) serves new and soon-to-be mothers, children under the age of five, and Americans over the age of sixty. Much like TEFAP, it provides USDA food to qualifying participants by delivering food to state agencies, who distribute it on the local level through public and private organizations. Unfortunately, also like TEFAP, this program is currently without funding. Food resources available will be limited to what is currently in inventory at food banks. Some states may be able to find funding to run this program in the interim, but the shutdown has put a lot of pressure on states to find room in their budgets to accommodate multiple unfunded programs. States will simply not be able to fund every program without renewed federal assistance, and food insecure Americans, like the people served by CFSP, will suffer the consequences.

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) provides food to low-income households, either on-reservation or to certain American Indian households off-reservation, depending on location. Participants cannot receive food from FDPIR if they participate in SNAP in the same month.  Many participants in FDPIR choose this program over SNAP because they live in remote areas where SNAP vendors (i.e., grocery stores) either do not exist or are not accessible.

Two-hundred and seventy-six (276) of the 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States participate in FDPIR. In FY 2012, USDA reported that 76,530 participated on average monthly in FDPIR. Without funding for FDPIR, these participants do not have access to this source of food. In some situations, especially for participants who live in very remote areas where the only sources of food are government-operated, it is likely that they do not have access to any reliable source of food without this program.

These programs, and more importantly the lives of the hungry Americans who depend upon them, will remain in jeopardy until the federal government resumes normal operations.

Even when the shutdown ends, there may yet be cause for concern: Congress has repeatedly battled over funding for food assistance programs over the last two years, and that includes cutting the money provided for these programs. This will have devastating effects on Americans at the lowest levels of food security.

With SNAP benefits set to decrease in November (discussed below), CAPs may be put under even more strain as SNAP beneficiaries look for ways to supplement their already inadequate food supplies.

Women, Infants, & Children (WIC)

WIC serves 9 million American women, infants, and children. WIC participation has been associated with a variety of positive outcomes, including but not limited to: improving both the mental and physical health of participants, increasing the likelihood that children will receive vaccinations, decreasing instances of child abuse and neglect, reducing anemia, improving overall diets, and encouraging pregnant women to stop smoking.

When the shutdown went into effect on 1 October, various national news sources reported that WIC was not likely to last more than a few weeks, or even days. Those reports, based on USDA's initial speculation, understandably caused panic and outrage.  Fortunately, thanks to contingency funds, Secretary Vilsack and USDA have ensured that states can continue to support current WIC participants and pay WIC vendors through the end of October. USDA has authorized the use of contingency and carryover funds to keep this program running in all fifty states until the end of this month.

This does not mean WIC participants have been unaffected by the shutdown, especially those who live in states whose offices closed their doors before USDA issued the notice about contingency funds, or those who WIC vendors turned away post-shutdown because they assumed they would not be reimbursed.

Most recently, North Carolina announced that it does not have the funds to issue any further WIC vouchers for the month of October, leaving an estimated 20% of North Carolina WIC participants without their vouchers in the absence of renewed federal funding.

On 4 October, shortly before adjourning for the weekend, the House passed legislation, H.J. Res. 75  that would fund WIC through FY 2014. It has been placed on the Senate's calendar, where it is likely to remain until its eventual demise; both the Senate and the President have been unwilling to consider similar piecemeal legislation thus far.   The National WIC Association, a non-profit policy group that advocates for WIC participants, also opposes this legislation. The bill will either fail or remain dormant in the Senate. Even if H.J. Res. 75 somehow did become law, it would still only appropriate funds for WIC through 15 December, a week before Congress typically adjourns for winter holidays. This would potentially set us up for another WIC-related showdown, but this time during the winter holiday season, when food banks typically experience increased demand.

The WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) , which is run alongside the overall WIC program, provides a source of fresh fruit and vegetables, all from local growers, to WIC participants. It also provides food to those on a waiting list to receive WIC benefits.

According to a 2010 GAO Report, 46 state agencies participate in this program, which serves 2.2 million women, infants, and children. Although WIC will remain operational until the end of the month, the WIC FMNP has no funding presently, depriving participants of this source of healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP, previously known as “Food Stamps,” is the most crucial of all federal domestic food assistance programs. Not only does it feed more Americans than any other federal program-- 42% of food insecure households in FY 2012 participated in SNAP-- but programs associated with SNAP also provide other benefits, like job training, to program participants. SNAP is an appropriated entitlement program. This means that although it falls into the category of mandatory Congressional spending, annual appropriations must fund it.

The USDA is currently relying on a broad interpretation of the Recovery Act to help states fund SNAP through October. The Recovery Act, Sec. 101 (f) authorizes USDA to spend “such sums as are necessary” to administer the act's temporary increase in benefits to SNAP participants; using this language, USDA's contingency shutdown plan authorizes continued payments.

SNAP funding increased during the recession when Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and as noted, USDA is keeping SNAP running through October because of that law.

After October, whether the shutdown is over or not, SNAP's status becomes more tenuous, thanks to the passage of P.L. 111-296 which accelerated the timeline for the end of Recovery Act funds. Even if the shutdown ends by 1 November, SNAP recipients will still see an automatic cut in their benefits as a result of this expiration. The average daily allowance for SNAP benefits in 2010 was $4.30/person per day which is already a bare bones allowance. SNAP benefits do not usually last for an entire month even at present levels , and cutting funding will only hurt food insecure Americans and increase reliance on other programs.

According to USDA's shutdown plan, contingency funding in the amount of $2 billion total will be available to help states with administering SNAP after October. However, that is a fraction of the cost per month of administering the program: the state of Texas alone delivered $6 billion in benefits to its citizens  in 2012. Spreading $2 billion across the entire country simply will not be possible.

SNAP’s satellite programs, like SNAP Employment & Training, are already imperiled due to the shutdown. The operational ability of this arm of SNAP during the shutdown depends entirely upon each individual state's budgetary constraints. In states that have not waived SNAP's job program requirement, this could have disastrous consequences for participants who are complying with the letter of the law: they could lose their ability to obtain food through SNAP. If that happens, where will they turn? Again, food banks and shelters would seem a logical alternative, once more placing an enhanced burden on charities, many of which are likely aided in their hunger relief efforts by presently defunct commodities programs like TEFAP.


Our food assistance programs and the participants that depend upon them are highly interconnected. A change in one program will necessarily affect another, and will have consequences for 17.6 million food insecure American households. USDA data from 2008 showed that of low-income households with low or very low food security, 12% participated in both SNAP and WIC in order to feed their families. Recent data from 2012 shows that 51.8% of SNAP participants are food insecure, and 39.5% of WIC recipients are food insecure. Even with fully operational food assistance programs, these families are struggling.

With a reduction in SNAP benefits looming in November and WIC's operational status in question after October if the shutdown continues, those families will need alternative sources of food, potentially putting more pressure on already strapped food banks. Private charitable feeding operations-- to the extent that they are truly private and do not receive food products from federal programs like TEFAP-- lack the infrastructure to fill the gap and feed food insecure Americans while the government idles.

Without the federal government's renewed support, millions of Americans will see a reduction in food availability. This has consequences for these Americans that extend beyond the physical: food insecurity takes a psychological toll on those who experience it, and every day that the shutdown continues is another day in which we ask 7 million Americans to live suffer the fear and anxiety that accompanies unreliable access to a basic necessity for life.

This presents a compelling argument for the federal government to resume operations as soon as possible to avoid further disruption to the daily lives of the people who depend on these programs.
Editor's Note: Though USDA materials would have been the most relevant sources for much of the information in this post, they are currently inaccessible online due to the shutdown. Where possible, the author has tried to provide alternate hosts for USDA white papers, statistical data, and critical data unavailable online presently.  This raises another issue -  critical information about food assistance programs for hungry Americans who might be seeking it is often unavailable, as many state websites and other sites such as, often link directly to FNS "for more information."  FNS is unavailable due to the shut down. 
Erin Shirl is a candidate in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law, where she received her J.D. in 2011; she also holds a B.A. (Political Science/ Russian Language) from Ouachita Baptist University, where she graduated magna cum laude as the Outstanding Graduate in Political Science. Erin is presently working on compiling a comprehensive legislative history of major federal food assistance programs in the United States, and is particularly interested in tracking American attitudes about food security over time. Prior to attending the LL.M. Program, Erin served as a Staff Attorney and Research Coordinator for the National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform. She is admitted to practice law in the state of Arkansas.

Erin can be reached at She's on Twitter at @erinshirl.


Blogger Kirsten said...

Fantastic post! I am a dietitian on the Blackfeet reservation where our food bank was having trouble keeping up before the shutdown. I and have been looking for such a comprehensive explanation on funding related to these programs. Thank you!

10/13/2013 11:14 AM  
Anonymous ben said...

excellent post Support local food production - small farmers don't rely on big govt and this is one good reason why!

1/06/2014 2:21 AM  

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