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Nutrition Programs You Should Know About—You Might Be Eligible
We are in a global recession, and nothing is more affected than food. The increased cost for basics like milk, bread, fruits and vegetables is being felt by everyone, rich and poor. But the U.S. federal government has a wealth of supplemental food programs that you may be eligible for even if you are working. And with the economy likely to be shaky for some time, it’s a good idea to know where you can go in case you become unemployed or disabled.

What you may not know is that supplemental food programs are not “welfare” programs, but organizations that work to ensure that families have enough food to ensure health, growth and an absence of hunger. Most of these programs also offer free nutrition counseling and education so that recipients can learn the healthiest way to use the foods they’re given. Children’s health is a priority as the future of the community. A lack of good nutrition affects children’s physical, behavioral and mental health, their physical and mental development and their school readiness and achievement.

Most supplemental programs do have an income guideline, but it is often high enough to include working parents. The 2009 WIC guideline, for example, is $39,220 for a family of four and jumps to $45,880 for a family of five. Those who qualify for WIC also meet the guidelines for the Free School Lunch program, Summer Lunch Program and others.

To determine what programs are available and whether you qualify, go to This wonderful website asks for your zip code or state and displays which food programs are offered to your community. You can also take a private questionnaire that will give you information on more specific programs.

Here’s an overview of the programs:

SNAP. the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the new name for Food Stamps, with much welcomed changes to accompany the new name. Focusing on nutrition, the SNAP program promises easier accessibility, debit cards instead of paper vouchers to pay for food and allowable deductions such as childcare, elder care or expenses relating to a handicapped member of the household.

Education and retirement accounts are no longer considered resources, so if you were denied before because of a 401K, reapply. Children automatically qualify for free school breakfast and lunch programs if the family is eligible for SNAP funds. There’s no age limit to receive SNAP.

WIC. The Women, Children and Infants Supplemental Food Program is a very old, very successful nutrition program for pregnant and nursing women, their babies and children up to 5 years. The purpose of WIC is to ensure that children are healthy and ready for school, where they will then move into the school breakfast and lunch program.

WIC offers the most comprehensive breastfeeding support program in the United States, offering lactation-trained peer counseling at no charge throughout the infant’s first year. WIC participants are also eligible for the Farmer Market Nutrition Program, receiving checks specifically to buy fresh produce at local markets.

Summer Food Program. Another program of the USDA, this offers lunches throughout the summer month, when kids are out of school. The lunches are often distributed in local parks or community centers where the children can also play.

Special Milk Program. Provides free milk to schools, daycare centers and camps.

Feeding America. Formerly called America’s Second Harvest, this is a network of individuals, food banks, national offices and corporate and government partners. Working with national corporate donors and grocery stores, food is distributed through food banks to soup kitchens, food pantries, youth programs and emergency centers. Families with emergency needs or communities involved in a disaster are users of this program. The organization will also refer recipients to other nutrition programs and acts as an advocacy group to make communities more aware of hunger in America.

The Backpack Program. Sponsored by Feeding America, this program for school-aged kids fills backpacks with child-friendly, non-perishable foods to carry them through a weekend or school holiday.

These programs are much welcomed at a time when some 36 million Americans, according to the most recent statistics, live in food-insecure households. We should all be grateful if good fortune greets us and provides us with food for our families, but we should never hesitate to accept assistance if we need it. Nor should we ignore the needs of our communities during these difficult times, so please be generous with canned goods and financial gifts during the next food drive in your neighborhood.

Take comfort in knowing that if you need something, all you have to do is ask. These food programs are not handouts, but ways that our community takes care of the health and well-being of its members.

Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant