Domestic Food Assistance:

Complex System Benefits Millions, but Additional Efforts Could Address Potential Inefficiency and Overlap among Smaller Programs

GAO-10-346: Published: Apr 15, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 15, 2010.

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The federal government spends billions of dollars every year on domestic food assistance programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers most of these programs and monitors the prevalence of food insecurity--that is, the percentage of U.S. households that were unable to afford enough food sometime during the year. Other federal agencies also fund food assistance programs; however, comprehensive and consolidated information on the multiple programs is not readily available. Congress asked GAO to examine: 1) the prevalence of food insecurity in the United States, 2) spending on food assistance programs, 3) what is known about the effectiveness of these programs in meeting program goals, and 4) the implications of providing food assistance through multiple programs and agencies. GAO's steps included analyzing food security and program spending data, analyzing studies on program effectiveness, analyzing relevant federal laws and regulations, conducting site visits, and interviewing relevant experts and officials.

The prevalence of food insecurity hovered between 10 and 12 percent over the past decade until it rose to nearly 15 percent (or about 17 million households) in 2008. Households with incomes below the poverty line, households headed by single parents, minority households, and those with children had higher than average rates of food insecurity. These households were more likely to report, for example, that they had been hungry, but didn't eat, because there wasn't enough money for food. While some households were able to protect children from the effects of food insecurity, many could not. In more than 4.3 million households, children--as well as adults--were affected by food insecurity sometime during the year. The federal government spent more than $62.5 billion on 18 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs in fiscal year 2008. The five largest food assistance programs--Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the National School Lunch Program; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the Child and Adult Care Food Program; and the School Breakfast Program--accounted for 95 percent of total spending on the 18 programs. Since 1995 SNAP spending has fluctuated while spending on the other large programs has remained relatively stable. Economic conditions--such as unemployment or poverty--and other factors can affect spending on some programs, particularly SNAP. Research suggests that participation in 7 of the programs we reviewed--including WIC, the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and SNAP--is associated with positive health and nutrition outcomes consistent with programs' goals, such as raising the level of nutrition among low-income households, safeguarding the health and wellbeing of the nation's children, and strengthening the agricultural economy. However, little is known about the effectiveness of the remaining 11 programs because they have not been well studied. Federal food assistance is provided through a decentralized system that involves multiple federal, state, and local organizations. The complex network of 18 food assistance programs emerged piecemeal over the past several decades to meet various needs. Agency officials and local providers told us that the multiple food assistance programs help to increase access to food for vulnerable or target populations. However, the 18 food assistance programs show signs of program overlap, which can create unnecessary work and lead to inefficient use of resources. For example, some of the programs provide comparable benefits to similar target populations. Further, overlapping eligibility requirements create duplicative work for both service providers and applicants. Consolidating programs, however, entails difficult trade-offs. Such actions could improve efficiency and save administrative dollars but could also make it more difficult to achieve the goals of targeting service to specific populations, such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture, as the principal administrator of the federal government's food assistance programs, should identify and develop methods for addressing potential inefficiencies among food assistance programs and reducing unnecessary overlap among the smaller programs while ensuring that those who are eligible receive the assistance they need. Approaches may include conducting a study; convening a group of experts (consistent with the Federal Advisory Committee Act), including, for example, representatives of the 18 food assistance programs, state representatives, and local providers; considering which of the lesser-studied programs need further research; or piloting proposed changes. Recommendations from further study could be used by administering agencies or, if appropriate, by Congress to improve the federal government's food assistance system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: In FY10, USDA commented that any allocation of resources to study, explore, or consult with experts on inefficiency or overlap would shift resources away from other projects and priorities. The Department reported that it intends to make decisions on specific actions to ensure the most cost-effective use of limited research dollars available by focusing on improvements in program policy and operations, including opportunities for efficiency. In FY11, USDA reported that, on an ongoing basis, it will continue efforts to promote policy and operational changes that streamline the application and certification process; enforce existing rules that prevent simultaneous participation in programs with similar benefits or target audiences; and review and monitor program operations to minimize waste and error. In FY12, USDA reported that, to maximize efficiencies within USDA's current authority, FNS promotes policy and operational changes that streamline the application and certification process; enforce rules that prevent simultaneous participation in programs with similar benefits or target audiences; and reviews and monitors program operations to minimize waste and error. For example, FNS has worked with Congress to enact changes in the National School Lunch Program such as requiring direct certification of students for free meals using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program data; and simplifying the certification process by requiring a single application for all children in a household. As of November, 2013, FNS reports that it is currently conducting a study with an evaluation contractor to gain a better understanding of State's implementation of broad-based, narrow, and traditional categorical eligibility. FNS is in the process of commissioning a paper on the feasibility and potential cost of a study to assess the extent of overlap and duplication among all nutrition assistance programs administered by USDA.

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