A Brief Overview of the Right to Food in the United States

by Anna Speck

The right to adequate food is an important concept that is often misunderstood. It means the right to access food that will provide adequate nutrition for a healthy and active life. It does not guarantee that one’s government will provide all the food you need free of charge. What it does guarantee is the availability, accessibility, and adequacy of food, along with appropriate means for you to acquire it. In essence, it is the “right to feed oneself in dignity,” not the “right to be fed” (United Nations OHCHR). Significant reasons for that right to go unfulfilled include inequality, poverty, and/or location — such as rural or urban food deserts or swamps — any or all of which may lead to lack of access to nutritious food, or to nutritional sacrifices being made because of lack of funds, not scarcity of the food itself (Holt-Gimenez et. al. (2012)).

Maine: A Special Case

In the United States, the right to food is not federally recognized. In fact, Maine is the only state that has a law codifying the right to food as an amendment to its constitution, and it is not based that availability of a food assistant program such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has traditionally been associated with the right to food. . In Maine, the right to food is characterized by the constituents’, specifically farmers’, desire for autonomy. Independent localities, and on a smaller level, farmers, now have their right to grow, sell, and purchase food legally protected. The amendment itself reads:

“All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the harvesting, production or acquisition of food.” 

Though this amendment may seem like common sense, the vague nature of the language provides for more freedom than other states are permitted. It protects farmers from federal regulations related to animal husbandry, such as pasteurization and slaughtering practices. Maine has a history of protecting individuals’ rights to farm and produce food. In 2011, the federal Food Safety Modernization Act was passed, but Maine’s farmers were prepared and fought it for small-scale producers. Eventually, after a series of legal battles with farmer Dan Brown, the state got on board and began the process of passing the right to food amendment (Heipt 2022).

Federal Food Assistance Programs

In the rest of the United States, policies relating to the right to food are directly related to food assistance programs, which exist both privately (think soup kitchens and food pantries) and publicly (think federal and state programs). Below is a comprehensive list of current federal food assistance programs available through the Federal Nutrition Service at USDA:

Nutrition Assistance Programs:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
  • Farmers Market Nutrition Program
  • Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program

Child Nutrition Programs:

  • National School Lunch Program (SLP)
  • School Breakfast Program
  • Summer EBT
  • Summer Food Service Program
  • Child and Adult Care Food Program
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
  • Special Milk Program
  • Patrick Leahy Farm to School Program

USDA Food Distribution Programs

  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
  • Commodity Supplemental Food Program
  • USDA Food in Schools

Each of these programs has its own eligibility requirements and benefits. Funding for many of these programs is determined by the Farm Bill, and  lawmakers are still fighting against their continued funding. Additionally, there are many overlaps between programs, eligibility requirements are confusing and stringent, especially for SNAP and WIC, the two largest programs, and benefits may not be renewed not because of a change in the recipient’s eligibility, but because of bureaucratic confusion, which especially impacts the elderly because applications and renewals have largely moved online.

Early food assistance programs were created to help farmers sell their surplus production while, at the same time, providing food for those living in poverty. The government would purchase the produce and redistribute it to those in need — a win/win situation. After the Agricultural Adjustment Act was passed in 1933 and the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation was established in 1935 a more formal food assistance program was established in the first iteration of what we now know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Food Stamp Program of 1939 lasted just four years, ending in 1943, because the conditions that had inspired its genesis as the country emerged from the Great Depression no longer applied. Based only on the numbers, the program was successful, but many recipients found it less than adequate to fulfill their needs because of the heavy-handed restrictions that were based on economists’ budgets, which did not necessarily account for a family’s other expenses, an issue that is still prevalent in SNAP.

President John Kennedy introduced a new version of the Food Stamp Program in Appalachia in 1961, and President Lyndon Johnson then expanded it into a national program in 1964. As with the first Food Stamp Program, agricultural and business interests were a priority, with feeding hungry people coming as a secondary benefit. This became especially evident with the “buy-in,” a requirement that benefactors pay whatever portion of their income already dedicated to food, and state-determined aspects of eligibility that created significant barriers for those most in need, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in participation in counties that switched from the Federal Surplus Relief program to food stamps. Additionally, since the food stamps program was still prioritizing buying surplus crops over nutrition, the right to food was still not present due to lack of adequate nutrition for a healthy life. The difference between the surplus distribution program and the food stamps program was the cost to families — surplus distribution was free for families, but they had no choice in what food they received. Food stamps allowed for more choice, but there were still limits that were directly related to a predetermined “healthy” diet, and what crops were being overproduced nationally. However, eligibility expanded throughout the 1960s and 70s and led to the program’s participation increasing from 500,000 in 1965 to 10 million in 1971, and continued expansion throughout the 1970s.

The increasing size of the program led to Congressional disagreements over budget concerns, resulting in a return to stricter eligibility requirements based on gross income, and a less frequent adjustment for cost of living. In 1996, several additional eligibility requirements cut off many benefit recipients, including legal residents who were not American citizens, and restricted access to able-bodied adults with and without children and/or other dependents. This trajectory of limited eligibility and lower benefits continued into the 2000s, until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about additional emergency funding, which has since ended. The result has been increased food insecurity, as was anticipated before the benefits ran out.

Benefit adequacy has been a persistent challenge for lawmakers, as is significant and continuing disagreement over the program’s existence itself. Some Congresspeople fight for more stringent eligibility requirements, fewer benefits, and stricter restrictions on usage, while others want to expand eligibility and make it easier for those in need to access SNAP. There is a lack of nuance in the determination of benefit adequacy that impacts the effectiveness of the program in different locales because of varying costs of living and access barriers. If one is eligible for SNAP but lives in a rural area where the nearest grocery store that accepts EBT is more than 30 miles away the cost of travel (in terms of both time and fuel) cuts into the effectiveness of the benefits.

Climate Change

The effects of climate change are a threat to the right to food. The increased incidence of natural disasters, especially drought, in many regions of the world, prevent people living in rural areas who previously were able to grow adequate food from doing so. Climate change has increased global food insecurity, and in the United States it has impacted farming and food production. Additionally, the use of “traditional” farming methods (e.g. synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, monocropping) have created infertile land where it is difficult, if not impossible to grow crops. The pressure in the 1970s to “get big, or get out” has had a devastating impact on U.S. farmland and the economy through the stripping of land and the consolidation of agrarian and economic power into few hands, both of which are relevant to the right to food. Stripped land decreases autonomy and the individual’s ability to grow food, and consolidation of power harms both farmers and consumers. Farmers do not get paid what their food is worth and are forced to overproduce in an effort to make as much money as possible while consumers, who are forced to pay more for food because of the middlemen in control of processing and distribution, also face the consequences of a nutrient-poor, heavily processed diet.

Foreign Aid

The United States has a history of using food as a tactic for diplomacy. By making agreements to use food as international aid, the U.S. has inserted itself into many poor countries without providing them means to create their own, self-sustaining economies. While these programs do provide emergency assistance, they also produce long-term adverse impacts and, ultimately, may infringe upon these countries’ right to food because they do not consider continued accessibility and appropriateness, and ultimately use food to leverage U.S. foreign interests.


There is no set-in-stone guarantee of a right to food in the United States, and many people in the U.S. do not disagree with not codifying this right. The United Nations General Assembly passed a Right to Food Resolution in 2021, with the United States and Israel the only two member-states to outright reject the resolution. Reasons given by the U.S. for rejecting the resolution include “inaccurate linkages between climate change and human rights related to food,” a lack of focus on solutions to food insecurity, and a lack of information regarding agricultural innovation and the protection of intellectual property rights as a way to incentivize innovation (U.S. Mission Geneva). 

Expanding the right to food is beneficial not just socially but also environmentally. Public programs currently in existence in the U.S. do help with food access and food insecurity but also do not fulfill all needs related to hunger and nutrition. Alterations to agricultural policy, such as incentivizing sustainable growing methods, can help reverse (some) effects of industrial agriculture, such as climate change and poor diet. These changes can help result in access to more nutritional food in the United States, helping achieve the right to food without actually passing a law.

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