Commodity Foods

Commodity Foods 2153
Photo by: Oleg Kozlov

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers several programs that distribute commodity foods, which are foods that the federal government has the legal authority to purchase and distribute in order to support farm prices. The first commodity distribution program began during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when it was known as the Needy Family Program. This was the main form of food assistance for low-income people in the United States until the Food Stamp Program was expanded in the early 1970s. The Needy Family Program distributed surplus agricultural commodities such as cheese, butter, and other items directly to low-income people. Today, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, administers the nation's commodity food distribution programs. The programs continue to improve the nutrition status of low-income people, while providing a means for using surplus agricultural commodities from U.S. farm programs.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) works to improve the health of low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, other new mothers up to one year postpartum, infants, children up to age six, and low-income elderly persons sixty years of age and older by supplementing their diets with commodity foods. Eligible people cannot participate in USDA's Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and CSFP at the same time.

The USDA purchases food and makes it available to state agencies and Indian tribal organizations, along with funds for administrative costs. The commodity foods provided to participants do not provide a complete diet , but are designed to supplement the nutritional needs of participants and may include canned fruit juice, canned fruits and vegetables, farina, oats, ready-to-eat cereal, nonfat dry milk, evaporated milk, egg mix, dry beans, peanut butter, canned meat, poultry or tuna, dehydrated potatoes, pasta, rice, cheese, butter, honey, and infant cereal and formula. Distribution sites make packages available on a monthly basis.

As of 2003, the program operates in thirty-two states and the District of Columbia. An average of more than 410,000 people participated in the program each month in 2002, including more than 337,000 elderly people and more than 73,000 women, infants, and children.

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)

The FDPIR provides monthly food packages of commodity foods to low-income American Indian households living on or near Indian reservations. Currently there are some 243 tribes receiving benefits under the FDPIR. Household eligibility for the program is based on income and resource standards set by the federal government. Many people participate in FDPIR as an alternative to the Food Stamp Program because they lack easy access to food stamp offices or authorized grocery stores. Households cannot participate in FDPIR and the Food Stamp Program in the same month.

Each month, participant households receive a food package to help them maintain a nutritionally balanced diet. Participants can select from over seventy products, including items such as frozen ground beef and chicken; canned meats, poultry, and fish; canned fruits and vegetables; canned soups and spaghetti sauce; macaroni and cheese; pasta; cereal; rice and other grains; cheese; egg mix and nonfat dry and evaporated milk; dried beans; dehydrated potatoes; canned juices and dried fruit; peanuts and peanut butter; flour, cornmeal, and crackers; corn syrup; and vegetable oil and shortening.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

The Emergency Food Assistance Program is the largest of the commodity food donation programs. TEFAP was designed to reduce the level of government-held surplus commodities by distributing them to low-income households to supplement the recipients' purchased food. Local agencies may also use the commodities to prepare and serve meals in congregate settings, such as soup kitchens.

Most states set eligibility criteria at between 130 and 150 percent of the poverty line. In many states, food stamp participants are automatically eligible for TEFAP. The types of foods USDA purchases for TEFAP distribution vary depending on the preferences of states and agricultural market conditions. Typical foods include canned and dried fruits, fruit juice, canned vegetables, dry beans, meat, poultry, fish, rice, oats, grits, cereal, peanut butter, nonfat dried milk, dried egg mix, pasta products, vegetable oil, and corn syrup.

Food Assistance for Disaster Relief

Food assistance for disaster relief is furnished to state relief agencies and organizations (e.g., Red Cross, Salvation Army) in times of emergency, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and winter storms. FNS may provide commodity foods for distribution to shelters and mass feeding sites, or distribute commodity food packages directly to persons in need.

Disaster relief organizations request food assistance through state agencies that run USDA's food and nutrition assistance programs. Emphasis is on food that requires little or no preparation, including such items as canned juice, canned meat, and canned fruits and vegetables. Baby food and infant formula are provided as needed.

The Food and Nutrition Service

The goal of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is to eliminate hunger amid the prosperity of the United States. The FNS administers 15 nutrition assistance programs at a cost of more than $40 billion per year. While these programs have been extremely successful in reducing widespread hunger in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that approximately 3.5 percent of American households continue to experience hunger at some time during the year because they can't afford enough food.

—Paula Kepos

Commodity Distribution to Other Programs

The USDA also donates food commodities to a variety of programs. The largest donations go to school food programs at more than 94,000 public

Workers prepare to redistribute surplus foods purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA's commodity foods programs serve a dual purpose, maintaining the price of certain food products and ensuring that at-risk populations get the food they need. [Photograph by Ken Hammond. USDA. Reproduced by permission.]
Workers prepare to redistribute surplus foods purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA's commodity foods programs serve a dual purpose, maintaining the price of certain food products and ensuring that at-risk populations get the food they need.
[Photograph by Ken Hammond. USDA. Reproduced by permission.]
and private nonprofit schools. During 2002, the USDA spent over $700 million on over a billion pounds of commodity foods for Schools/Child Nutrition Commodity Programs. Commodity food donations are also made to the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the nutrition programs for the elderly administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. Food commodities are also distributed to nonprofit, charitable institutions that serve meals to low-income people on a regular basis. These include homes for the elderly, hospitals, soup kitchens, food banks, Meals On Wheels programs, temporary shelters, and summer camps or orphanages not participating in any federal child nutrition program.

For these programs, states select a variety of foods from a list of one hundred different kinds of products. Typical foods include fruits and vegetables; meats; cheese; dry and canned beans; fruit juices; vegetable shortening and vegetable oils; peanut products; rice, pasta products, flour, and other grain products. Additional foods may be offered to states periodically, if they become available as agricultural surpluses. Additional products donated in previous years have included applesauce, beef roasts, dried fruit products, fresh pears, frozen apricots, nonfat dry milk, orange juice, pork products, salmon, and turkey.

SEE ALSO Native Americans, Diet of ; Nutrition Programs in the Community ; School Food Service ; WIC Program .

Marie Boyle Struble


Boyle, Marie A. (2003). "Food Insecurity and the Food Assistance Programs." In Community Nutrition in Action: An Entrepreneurial Approach, 3rd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Food Research and Action Center (2002). State of the States: A Profile of Food and Nutrition Programs Across the Nation. Washington, DC: Author.

Internet Resources

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. "Nutrition Program Fact Sheets." Available from <>

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. "Food Distribution Programs." Available from <>

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. "Healthy Eating in Indian Country Fliers." Available from <>

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did usda use horsemeat for commodities in the 1950s and 1960s?

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