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The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

Updated : September 29th, 2022

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) helps low-income Americans access the food they need. TEFAP connects with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to purchase nutritious food for individuals and families in need while simultaneously supporting the country’s farmers. TEFAP food is delivered to local agencies to distribute throughout their communities. The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), formerly known as the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program, is a federal program that provides free food assistance to low-income families. The program was established in 1983 and is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the federal level. The program aims at reducing hunger.

TEFAP helps low-income Americans access the food they need. The program connects with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to purchase nutritious food for individuals and families in need while simultaneously supporting the country’s farmers. TEFAP food gets delivered to local agencies to distribute throughout their communities.

10 Things To Know About TEFAP

  1. What Is TEFAP?
  2. Who Qualifies for TEFAP?
  3. History of TEFAP
  4. What Types of Food Does TEFAP Provide?
  5. How Does TEFAP Work?
  6. Farm to Food Bank Project
  7. How To Qualify for TEFAP
  8. How TEFAP Is Funded
  9. Applying for TEFAP
  10. Additional Food Assistance

Through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) purchases and makes nutritious and high-quality, USDA food available to state distributing agencies. The amount of food the states receive is based on the number of people with income below the state-defined poverty level and the number of unemployed persons. States will then distribute the food to agencies such as food banks. In turn, these entities will distribute the food to food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other local agencies that provide food directly to those in need. 

The USDA foods can be used for household consumption as well as to serve meals in a congregate setting. TEFAP also provides states with funds to support the storage and distribution of USDA foods.

Whether temporary or long-term, every family deserves to have quality, nutritious meals each day. TEFAP allows that to happen by providing healthy ingredients to needy families through state and local agencies. The federal food distribution program works with the USDA to offer food assistance to the people who need it most.

TEFAP bridges the gap between needy families and food insecurity. Emergency food assistance is also available through TEFAP for families who already receive other government help, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, child care assistance, or cash assistance. USDA foods through TEFAP are also for low-income Americans who may not qualify for such assistance but still have trouble filling their pantries.

If you already receive benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, energy assistance, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), you may also qualify for TEFAP. This USDA program provides emergency food to food banks, soup kitchens, and state distributing agency partners. Here’s what to know about this helpful program.

1. What Is TEFAP?

The TEFAP program works with state agencies to provide food that stocks soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community agencies that provide food to individuals and families in need. Specifically, the food from the TEFAP program benefits low-income people who may not otherwise have access to healthy, nutritious meals.

Unlike other programs that cater to specific groups of low-income people, such as school children or elderly populations, TEFAP is for anyone who meets the income criteria for their household sizes.

This is a USDA food program that simultaneously benefits the country’s farmers. Local farmers grow crops and animals that the USDA uses to stock the TEFAP program and each community action agency with food.

As such, the USDA is the primary coordinator for the program. The agency reaches out to local farmers for food and the state agencies that disperse the food. These agencies typically include state departments of education and health and human services. Some states also use TEFAP foods to supply adult care food programs.

In addition to food, TEFAP also gives local agencies some financial assistance to support the organizations receiving TEFAP foods and the storage and distribution of TEFAP foods.

2. Who Qualifies For TEFAP?

Nonprofit private and public entities that distribute food for preparing meals to be served at congregate settings or household consumption can receive commodities under TEFAP. 

Households may also be eligible for TEFAP food but only for home consumption. To receive the food, they must meet certain eligibility requirements, as mentioned below.

1. Total income of the household must be below or at 130% of the poverty level for the number of people living in the family

2. The household should qualify for any of the below-listed programs:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Aid to Needy Disabled (AND)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Medicaid Eligible Foster Children

Note – The “income” above refers to your gross income before any expenses, deductions, etc. The gross income includes wages, salaries, unemployment compensation, Social Security, pensions, public assistance or welfare payments, etc. 

Recipients participating in a soup kitchen are not subjected to any test as it is assumed that those seeking a meal are needy.

Income Requirements 

Households should also meet income guidelines. The requirements may, however, vary from one state to another. For instance, the income eligibility in Michigan is as below.

Family Size Weekly  Monthly  Annual 
1 $490 $2,126  $25,520
2 $663 $2,873 $34,480
3 $835 $3,620 $43,440
4 $1,007 $4,366 $52,400
5 $1,180 $5,113  $61,360
6 $1,352 $5,860 $70,320
7 $1,524 $6,606 $79,280
8 $1,696 $7,353 $88,240
For each additional member add $172 $746 $8,960

In states like New York, anyone can qualify for TEFAP regardless of immigration status and income. 

3. History of TEFAP

Originally, TEFAP was known as the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program. It began as part of the Emergency Food Assistance Act of 1983, which allowed the government to give overstocks of food and commodities to local agencies, like food banks and soup kitchens. It also allowed for funds to store and distribute these commodity foods. The program was designed to help eliminate food waste but has grown into a means to reduce hunger in low-income populations.

Since its beginning, TEFAP has undergone a series of changes to make it the program it is today. For instance, in 2018, TEFAP was given more funding and was allowed to create new programs to reduce food waste and accept more foods for the program. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government sent more funding for the program, including money for food, storage, and distribution.

TEFAP currently operates in all 50 states, working with specific state distributing agency partners in each state. The farm bill – a law governing several agricultural regulations –  oversees, amends, and reauthorizes the TEFAP program.

4. What Types of Food Does TEFAP Provide?

The TEFAP program focuses mostly on foods that local farmers provide, such as vegetables, fruit, and dairy products. However, the program has grown to include private-purchase items and donated foods, allowing much more of a variety to make their way into each food bank.

Some of the most common foods to get through TEFAP include canned goods, like sauce, tuna, beans, and soup; boxed foods, like pasta, rice, and crackers; and dairy and animal products, like milk, cheese, and eggs. Jarred sauce, peanut butter, cereal, nuts, and fresh produce are also common TEFAP food finds.

The TEFAP food offerings may vary based on location, season, and availability. Generally, the TEFAP program purchases affordable, widely available, and easy to access foods. These can change from month to month or season by season, especially outside factors affecting the foods’ distribution or storage.

5. How Does TEFAP Work?

TEFAP has somewhat of a chain-like process in which several agencies and people are involved with the coordination and overseeing of food distribution.

TEFAP starts with the USDA. The USDA purchases food from local farmers and producers. It chooses the foods it wants to purchase based on a list of available items and estimated prices. USDA vendors can then submit bids for the purchase of those items for the TEFAP program, and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) makes contracts with those vendors.

Then, the USDA coordinates food distribution with each state distributing agency to get the food where it needs to go, like food pantries.

From there, each place given TEFAP food distributes the food to individuals and families who need it. For instance, a food bank decides which families in its community are eligible for donations and sets up times and meeting places for those families to receive food.

TEFAP also has administrative funds that go toward helping agencies store and distribute foods. For example, these funds might pay rental costs for storage facilities or shipping costs for TEFAP food to make its way to a Feeding America event.

6. Farm to Food Bank Project

The Emergency Food Assistance Program’s primary mission is to get food to Americans who need it most. However, it also works to build relationships between farmers, food producers, and their local communities and reduce food waste.

TEFAP accomplishes both of these tasks through the Farm to Food Bank Project. This program is split into multiple programs that help organizations get the food they need from TEFAP through storage and distribution. The foods that move through this program are donated by farmers, producers, and distributors. The project may also pay for sub-projects for farmers to plant and harvest certain foods for donation.

However, these administrative funds are not available for purchasing foods like the USDA does through TEFAP. Therefore, to receive these foods, individuals and families do not need to meet the same requirements as they would for TEFAP, as Farm to Food Bank Project foods are not considered the same as TEFAP foods.

Here are a few examples of Farm to Food Bank Projects in 2022:

  • Virginia: The program paid Virginia $224,985 to support the state’s current projects for reducing food waste by donating excess agricultural products to food banks.
  • Maine: Maine was allotted $37,828 to help farmers donate fresh blueberries to families in need.
  • Iowa: The state received $67,569 to transport, package, and distribute produce, eggs, and other fresh foods to food banks.

7. How To Qualify for TEFAP

Families who may not qualify for food or cash assistance benefits may still qualify for TEFAP.

This program is for low-income Americans, so household income is the most important factor the TEFAP program uses to determine eligibility. The income guidelines typically vary year by year based on the federal poverty guidelines. TEFAP generally allows households with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level to receive food, but this requirement varies by state.

Check the current federal poverty guidelines for your household size to find out if you’re eligible. Also, check with your state’s department of health and human services to learn its specific requirements.

Food banks and other organizations receiving food from TEFAP can qualify as a public or private nonprofit organization. These organizations must help low-income households access the food they need, typically through the preparation or distribution of food.

8. How TEFAP Is Funded

The Food and Nutrition Act (FNA) establishes how much funding to give the TEFAP program. However, it’s ultimately the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase food and provide administrative funds for TEFAP.

Each year, the amount allocated to the program may change. The USDA decides how much food each state gets based on the state’s income numbers, including unemployed individuals and households at or below the poverty level.

9. Applying for TEFAP

Each state has state distribution agencies that oversee where TEFAP food goes. To apply for the program, individuals and families should reach out to a state distributing agency to learn more about eligibility and how to apply. You can search for a state distributing agency on the USDA website.

In many cases, people can apply for TEFAP through their local department of job and family services or health department. However, pediatricians, doctors’ offices, schools, churches, and food banks may also have information on applying.

10. Additional Food Assistance

The Emergency Food Assistance Program is just one of many food-related programs that individuals and families can use to access healthy food. People who qualify for TEFAP may also be eligible for the following programs:

  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): WIC is for pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum women, and infants and children up to five years old. The program allows eligible persons to buy formula, cereal, baby food, eggs, and other nutritious foods to supplement a healthy diet.
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Also sometimes referred to as food stamps, SNAP pays a monthly food allowance to low-income Americans to help them afford their meals.
  • National School Lunch Program: This program helps public and private schools and childcare centers provide nutritious meals and snacks to children who attend. Low-cost or free lunches may be available to students who qualify based on their household income.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program

TEFAP commodities get nutritious foods into the hands of individuals and families who may not be able to afford them. The USDA oversees the program and provides food and funds to each state distributing agency. Then, the agencies divide the food between food banks, soup kitchens, and other community centers that provide food to needy families.

If you’re interested in applying for TEFAP food donations, you can get program information and eligibility requirements from your local health department, department of job and family services, or another state distributing agency.

For more resources on making healthy meals and adding nutritious foods to your diet, visit the USDA’s Nutrition website.

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