An Overview of USDA Emergency Feeding Procedures (Part 1 of 2)

Source: Marketplace (Flood victims gathering for food in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey)  Source: Salvation Army, Heartland Division


One of the missions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is to increase food security and reduce hunger among those Americans in need of nutritious meals (Food and Nutrition). In summer, the USDA provides 200 million free meals to low-income children around the country through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). What is less widely known, however, is that many of the same resources used to ensure all children are fed properly are also utilized during disaster situations. In the event of a hurricane, earthquake, civil disturbance, flood or other disaster, it is critical that food be available to all people in need. There are several resources the USDA has made available which can help both School Food Authorities (SFAs) and disaster relief organizations understand how to assist in disaster feeding response efforts. Here is some basic information about how such emergency measures operate.

Through its Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) agency, the USDA aids in emergency situations by:

  • Providing foods for schools, shelters and other mass feeding sites.
  • Distributing food packages directly to households.
  • Issuing emergency SNAP (D-SNAP: Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. (Food Assistance in Disaster Situations)

The FNS ensures that food is made available to disaster relief organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, which play a crucial role in the distribution of food to both individual households and congregate feeding sites. The disaster organizations must request assistance from the states’ agencies that run USDA nutrition assistance programs. These agencies then inform the USDA of the types and amounts of food necessary for sufficient emergency feeding. (source)

Where the food comes from depends heavily on whether it is being used for meals in a group setting or household distribution. Every state has available stocks that are normally used in USDA-sponsored food programs (source). However, institutional size USDA foods come from larger sources such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). In contrast, household size USDA foods are normally taken from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) (USDA Foods Program Disaster Manual). If a state has insufficient food in stock, the USDA may facilitate the shipping of food from other states or from its own inventory.

Generally, the USDA’s first course of action is to permit states to release food stocks to disaster relief agencies in order for feeding in larger settings to begin as soon as possible. Direct distribution of food to households may occur as a next step if grocery stores or other links in the normal commercial food supply chains are compromised. In any case, the food provided (such as juice, meat, or fruits and veggies) is mostly canned so that the preparation time required is limited and food can be distributed as efficiently as possible.

Another critical element of the USDA’s emergency feeding plan is the issuance of emergency SNAP benefits, or D-SNAP. People in affected regions that have suffered disaster-related damage to their homes, loss of income, or lack of access to bank accounts, are eligible to receive D-SNAP benefits. Additionally, students who are displaced can qualify for free meals with an e-mail, phone call, or in-person notification. The USDA decides to issue emergency SNAP benefits only when a disaster has a “Presidential Disaster Declaration” or when grocery stores and/or other food supply channels have been restored. States must as always request that the USDA allow them to issue D-SNAP benefits to those in need.

Especially during hurricane season, pressure on the USDA for commodity food can be strong. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, USDA provided 22 million pounds of food to those affected, and 1.4 million households received over $680 million in D-SNAP benefits. The need was as great during the torrential 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which included Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, although exact numbers have not yet been reported. It is important for everyone, especially those in areas at high risk for natural disasters, to be mindful of the procedures undertaken to assure that all survivors are able to receive food following such a devastating event.

For more information on emergency feeding procedures, contact the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Public Information Staff at 703-305-2281, or visit the USDA website at USDA Natural Disaster Assistance.

The second part of this article can be found here.


Katie Kuhl, Research Assistant, Smarter Lunchrooms Movement National Office

Erin Sharp, MS, MAT, Curriculum Designer, Smarter Lunchrooms Movement National Office

Ashley Moen, MS, RD, SNS, Summer Meal Programs Supervisor, Colorado Dept. of Education, Office of School Nutrition


Food and Nutrition (USDA)

Summer Food Service Program (USDA)

Food Assistance in Disaster Situations (USDA)

USDA Foods Program Disaster Manual (revised September 2017)

Interview with Danielle Bock, SNS, and Kara Sample, RDN, SNS, Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6