A Guide to Food Assistance Programs: How to Get Free Food, Meals, and Groceries

Posted on Nov 16 2014 - 8:31am by admin

Food Assistance is one of the more popular and widely available assistance available in the United States. There’s a number of established government programs that offer food assistance and there’s thriving local food assistance as well.

We can generally break food assistance into two categories: government assistance and food pantries /  food banks. The government programs offer Food Stamps, which are basically vouchers that can be traded in at affiliated grocery centres for food items.

Government Food Assistance Programs

These programs exist mostly at the federal level, but some of the funding is distributed to state governments as well. Assistance is provided directly or through organizations funded by the government. It’s recommended that you check your local STATE programs to see if there are any specific food assistance programs. Short of that, you can look at the federal programs that offer assistance.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

This is a federal program that specifically targets low income households and is the biggest food assistance program in the United States. Millions of people every year receive assistance from SNAP.

Just because you want ‘free food’ doesn’t mean you will actually qualify for the SNAP program, however. The program is only given out if you meat several specific conditions – you must be between 18 and 60, you must be a US citizen and have SSN, and you must have some sort of income, however small it may be. The coverage lasts from three to six months but can, circumstances depending, last as long as 3 years.

The program has a complex set of requirements which basically comes down to ‘you need to be poor and be able to prove it to the government.’ If you don’t meet the criteria yourself, you can still apply for your children or extended family members who may qualify. You are more likely to get it if you have children, but it’s possible to receive Food Stamp assistance as an individual without children, if you can prove your case.

The SNAP program is always changing in both the requirements to be accepted and the level of assistance offered – so it’s HIGHLY advisable that you visit the SNAP website and make a visit to your local Community Action Agency for current information about the program.

SNAP offers a wide range of food assistance through their food stamp program. You can trade the food stamps in at local grocery stores like Walmart, etc. There are some limitations to what the food vouchers can be exchanged for, however. You can’t buy alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, household supplies, medications, pet foods, non-foods, and other non-essential items. Basically, you can buy food and only food with them.

Read our complete guide on how to apply and receive Food Stamps in the US

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

This is one of those federal assistance programs that can supplement women going through pregnancy, women with young children, and small children in low income households. While the SNAP program focuses on handing out food stamps, WIC focuses on supplementary nutrition for women going through pregnancy and young children. If you qualify for WIC you are also required to attend nutritional educational training as well.

Assistance given may depend on the state you apply for WIC in, but generally will include basic dairy products (milk, eggs, and cheese), fresh produce (fruits and veggies), canned and dried goods, baby foods and infant formula.

The goal with WIC is to provide supplemental healthy nutrition, so those types of foods offered will be aimed in that direction.

IF you applied previously for some type of federal assistance (SNAP, TANF, Medicaid), you will automatically be approved for WIC, provided you meet the additional requirements of the program.

Nutrition Services Incentive Program (NSIP)

This program targets elderly persons. What it does is provide elderly persons with free meals, groceries, and free food stuffs. Depending where you are, you may also be offered hot or cold meals once a day – usually at a community center or other affiliated location. If seniors have problems with transportation, such assistance may be provided to and from the meal locations. There are other program offerings as well – check your local Community Action Agency for more details.

Food Distribution on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)

This is a specialized federal food assistance program that targets Native American families of low income with free food. Residents must be living in or by Indian reservations to receive this aid.

Child and Adult Care Food Program

A program that distributes free snacks and meals in child care centers, day care homes, afterschool programs, adult day care centers, and emergency shelters. Contact your Community Action Agency for more details or read government website here http://www.fns.usda.gov/cacfp/why-cacfp-important

School Lunch and Breakfast Assistance Program

This program has been a staple food assistance program across the United States for many years now. It’s basically a free or heavily subsidized school lunch program that offers discounted or free lunch meals to kids from low income families. The idea here is to make sure kids get proper nutritional meals in while at school

Summer Food Service Program

This program takes up the slack when the School Lung and Breakfast Program stop running (during the summer months). This program offers free meals to children at various locations around a city – parks, community centers, etc. You can find out how to apply by di

Commodity Supplemental Food Programs (CSFP)

This program offers assistance to women, children and individuals over the age of 60. The program is similar to WIC with the stated goal of improving nutrition with those most at risk of being mal-nourished.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program

A federal-backed program that distributes food items to states which then distribute it to local community organizations (soup kitchens, food pantries, charities, etc.) The food offered by this program is free and available to the needy. This program is not intended to supply all of a person’s food but rather supplement it. You can apply or find out more information at your nearby community action agency.

Non Profits and Charity Food Assistance Programs

Food assistance from charities and nonprofit organizations makes up a significant portion of the available food aid in the United States. Many of these programs offer direct assistance from food pantries, which are basically one-stop-shops set up for the needy who simply drop by with a box and pickup free groceries and other donated food stuffs once a week. Food pantries are restocked via community food donations and donated-store items. Most cities and towns across the US have at least one food bank / pantry. You can search online for your nearest one or simply go to a local community action agency office to find a list.

Salvation Army

One of the largest charity organizations in the US, one that provides a whole range of assistance including food assistance. Food assistance is given out via Salvation Army center food banks and can consist of free meals and groceries. During the holidays, special gift packs are given out as well. Visit your local Salvation Army center to inquire about food assistance.

Feeding America Food Banks

One of the largest charities that specializes in food assistance. This organization is spread across the United States and operates and coordinates food pantries in every major city (and towns too). They furnish local food banks with food items and provide free meals in various soup kitchens. To get food assistance, visit a local food pantry or your community action agency for a list of feeding America supplied food banks.

Local Church Food Assistance

Various churches offer emergency food assistance to the needy. This could be offered once a week directly from the church or through local agencies / food banks. To get this assistance you will just have to contact local churches in your area and ask about their food assistance programs. At the very least once church might be able to refer you to other churches that offer this or give other food assistance referrals.

Local Charity Assistance

Charities are yet another source of food assistance. Most charities offer some sort of emergency food assistance from in-house food banks or even direct delivery. You’ll need to search your area for charities than call them up to inquire. You can also read our comprehensive Charity Assistance Guide to find out what sort of charity programs are available to needy households.

Feeding America BackPack

This assistance program targets students with free food packs. Basically children are eligible to receive free groceries, food, and snack items from a national network of charity programs in the US. Contact Feeding America to apply for this.

Meals on Wheels Program

A national program that offers people who are unable to leave their homes meal services for discounted or free. It’s operated by volunteers and basically will deliver hot meals or free food items directly to a disabled person (or person who is unable to leave their home due to medical or physical reasons).

Discounted Grocery Outlets

Other forms of assistance outlets providing needy households with steeply discounted groceries rather than free food. These programs offer longer term sustainability for households with some income as you can buy your groceries cheaper than normal at these locations.  Here are a few such programs (this is not by any means an exhaustive list):

Treasure Valley Food Box

Families in a low income household can purchase a box of groceries for half the retail cost.

OneHarvest Food Ministries

This organization sells discounted fruit, veggies, and other food stuffs for about fifty percent of the normal costs.