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7 Government Food Assistance Programs for the Unemployed

Updated : May 25th, 2022

Food Assistance

Government food assistance programs cover a wide demographic. You may be automatically eligible for several programs depending upon your circumstances. The programs generously provide temporary assistance to help you get the nutritional support you need.

Government Food Assistance Programs for the Unemployed

  1. TEFAP
  2. SNAP
  3. D-SNAP
  4. National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs
  5. WIC Nutrition Program
  6. FDPIR
  7. Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)

These food assistance programs have holistic nutrition front and center, sourcing items from locally produced vegetables and fruits, including protein-rich items, grains, dairy, and oils. In addition to providing food items, many of these programs also offer education programs on nutrition. Each of these food assistance programs has its own eligibility requirements, with many including income-based requirements.

Funding for these food assistance programs is allocated at the federal level. However, for many, your local or state agency will handle the processing. Some programs are not offered in every state. Likewise, others may require you to live in a specific geographic region for eligibility.

1. TEFAP

The Emergency Food Assistance Program, in short TEFAP, was created by the Federal government to enhance the nutrition of low-income Americans. Under this commodity supplemental food program, emergency food is provided free of cost. Through the United States Department of Agriculture, TEFAP acquires nutritious foods. These foods are supplied to state agencies and distributed based on the population of unemployed people and those with incomes below the poverty level. Food pantries and other local organizations distribute allotted food. You may also find prepared meals at congregations, soup kitchens, and community gatherings free of cost. 

TEFAP is available to individuals under a certain household income level. This income level is tied to your state, and each state changes this number from time to time. It could be that you are automatically eligible for TEFAP if you have been covered under other welfare programs (federal, state, or local). However, to partake in a prepared meal distribution at your local kitchens, or organizations, your income level will not be checked. Such local organizations have already demonstrated their service to mostly low-income individuals.

To apply for TEFAP, you must contact your state distributing agency. Usually, this agency is your state’s Department of Agriculture (the Bureau of Food Distribution). For the financial year 2022, a wide variety of healthy and nutritious food items can be found, including fresh fruit, mixed produce, canned beans, protein foods including peanut butter and meat, dairy, grains, and oil.

2. SNAP

Better known as food stamps, SNAP benefits are continuously being modernized. Currently, SNAP provides cash assistance through an electronic benefits debit card (EBT card) to purchase specific food items at most supermarkets and even some farmer markets.  However, you may not purchase hot food or non-food items, including medications, tobacco, alcohol, and even pet food.

States define their own criteria for SNAP. For example, the state of Minnesota only looks at your monthly income, which should be under a certain threshold. While all income (including child support and unemployment benefits) will be counted, it does not matter if you own a home or how much money is in your savings account. On the other hand, some states will look at your assets for this food stamp program. Even if you are not a citizen, you may be eligible as a green card holder, trafficking victim, refugee, or asylee. Non-citizen parents applying for their US-citizen children may also be eligible.

You need to find your state’s SNAP web form to apply for these benefits. If no form is available, use your state’s SNAP benefit hotline to apply. For quick processing, be sure all provided information is accurate. 

3. DSNAP

DSNAP or the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides food security for low and moderate-income households that ordinarily do not receive SNAP benefits. DSNAP kicks in the aftermath of a natural disaster, which affects your income level. In states prone to hurricanes, like Louisiana, or earthquakes, like California, it may be a good idea to pre-register for the DSNAP program to avoid any last-minute processing lags. General questions about the DSNAP program can be directed to your state’s hotline, as they are very specific.

For DSNAP eligibility, you must report food loss specifically. Therefore, lost assets and lost utilities such as power are not criteria. Eligibility for this food assistance program is determined by analyzing your take-home pay (both earned and unearned) for the designated month and may include debt relief. All available cash on you, including bank balances, less your expenditures on disaster-related emergencies (that have not been compensated), will also go into determining your eligibility and what benefits you receive. Disaster emergency expenses can be repairs on your home or business, expenses to evacuate, disaster-caused personal injury, related funeral expenses, etc. Loss of income is also treated as a disaster-related expense.

Even if you don’t qualify for SNAP, you may qualify for DSNAP.  On the other hand, if you are a SNAP recipient, you are not likely to qualify for DSNAP. You can apply to the DCFS of your state if you meet the eligibility requirements for DSNAP benefits.

4. National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs

The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs ensure every child has healthy food as part of their school day.  Benefits are available to students in public and non-profit private and boarding schools. Your child’s school or school district will be able to tell you if they participate in either the lunch or breakfast program or both.

The Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines determine if your household qualifies for these programs. Your status must be that of a parent or primary caregiver responsible for a child attending elementary, middle school, or high school. You may also apply for yourself if you’re under 18. Additionally, you may be eligible if your family receives public assistance, SNAP food benefits, WIC, FDPIR, unemployment compensation, TANF, or Head Start. You may also be eligible if you are homeless, in foster care, or a runaway.

Typically, the National School Lunch program and school breakfast program applications are sent home by the school at the onset of the school year. Additionally, as a parent or guardian, you have the right to apply for school meals at any time by filling out and submitting your application directly to the school or school district. Either of these authorities will review your application before benefits are granted. If you are receiving SNAP assistance, such benefits are granted automatically. Note that participation in any other federal assistance program automatically qualifies you. 

National School Lunch and Breakfast programs are limited to the school year. However, a needy family can also get assistance through the summer when school is not in session through the summer food service program.    

5. WIC Nutrition Program

WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children. Presently, nearly 1 out of every 2 infants born in the United States are covered by WIC, as one of the most widely used child support services. Like other federal grants, WIC enables states to purchase supplemental nutrition, nutritional education resources, and health care for children 5 and under and pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women in low-income brackets. The program’s central aim is to improve these vulnerable groups’ long-term care outcomes. The Food and Nutrition Service is the federal agency in charge of WIC. However, you will have to look up your local or state agency and set up an appointment to enroll. For this, you need to visit your state’s website or call a toll-free number. Your appointment will be at your nearest office. They will tell you what documentation you need for your appointment when it is scheduled.

To be eligible, you have to meet categorical, income-based, residential, and nutritional risk criteria. Categorical eligibility requires women to be pregnant (up to 6 weeks after birth or end of the pregnancy), postpartum (up to 6 months after birth or end of the pregnancy), or breastfeeding (up to the baby’s first birthday). Infant benefits extend to the child’s first birthday, while children’s benefits extend to the fifth birthday.

Residential eligibility primarily implies that you live in the state where you apply. State agencies may require applicants to reside in a local area and use a WIC clinic that covers that area. Income eligibility varies by state: your income must be at or below the number set by your state’s agency. Typically, this figure is between 100% and 185% of the federal poverty income guideline. Automatic income eligibility comes from being enrolled in SNAP, Medicaid, TANF, etc. 

Unlike other programs, WIC requires that a medical professional determine that you are at nutritional risk, which is often done at a WIC clinic at no cost to you. Nutritional risk is often defined as having medical or diet-based conditions that may put your pregnancy at risk or having a history of poor pregnancy outcomes.

6. FDPIR

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, or FDPIR, allocates USDA-provided food aid to eligible individuals and households on Indian reservations and qualifying American Indian households. While the Food and Nutrition Service oversees this program federally, the local administration is delegated to the Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs) or State Agencies (SAs) authorized to act for federally recognized tribes. The USDA makes special purchases of domestic foods, including many traditional food items, and provides them to ITOs and SAs. These agencies further distribute this food to eligible applicants while also providing nutritional education.

To be eligible for this food benefit, households can be residents in participating reservations or income qualifying Indian Tribal Households that are residents in other approved areas outside a reservation or in certain service areas. The income eligibility depends on the size of the household. Recipients must be recertified at least once every year. To determine eligibility and apply for this food assistance program, you have to contact the state agency or Indian Tribal Organization that administers FDPIR in your region. You can learn more through the USDA National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-348-6479 or find the contact list online.

7. Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)

The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, also known as SFMNP, aims to help low-income seniors access locally produced vegetables, fruits, herbs, and honey. In addition to removing food insecurity, this program works to improve domestic consumption of agricultural produce by helping develop new farmers’ markets, community support, roadside stands, etc. Not all states participate in this federal program. The program defines low-income seniors as individuals over 60 years, with incomes up to 185% of the federal poverty level.

Finding Food Assistance

Beyond the programs discussed above, you can also find food assistance benefits at the local and state level. You can also find local food banks through Feeding America or a local food distribution program through community or religious organizations in your area.

Immediate Food Assistance

The USDA National Hunger Hotline can help if you are hungry right now. Learn more by calling 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273), with both English and Spanish options. They are open from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm (Eastern Time), Monday through Friday.

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