The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is a means-tested federal program that provides food commodities at no cost to Americans in need of short-term hunger relief through emergency food providers like food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. In FY2012, TEFAP provided approximately $585 million pounds worth of nutrition food commodities. [i]


USDA makes commodity foods available to States for distribution to low-income people through emergency food providers. USDA pays for processing, packaging, and shipping commodities to the States. USDA also provides States with funding to assist with the storage and distribution of TEFAP commodities. The amount of food and funds a State receives is based on a formula which takes into account state poverty and unemployment rates.

Each State determines how TEFAP is administered, choosing which organizations will distribute TEFAP commodities to those in need of food assistance. In most States, TEFAP commodities are distributed to regional food banks, which in turn distribute food to pantries, kitchens, shelters, and other agencies in their service area. Some agencies, like soup kitchens and shelters, provide meals to be consumed on site. Others, like pantries, provide groceries for clients to take home.

Mandatory TEFAP commodities are provided at a level set by the Farm Bill, adjusted annually for food inflation. Bonus TEFAP commodities are provided when USDA purchases surplus commodities to stabilize weak agricultural markets or purchases commodities to meet the Farm Bill specialty crop purchase requirement. TEFAP storage and distribution funding is funded separately through the annual appropriations process.


TEFAP has a strong, positive impact on America’s farm economy. All USDA commodities are American grown. Producers of commodities provided through bonus TEFAP purchases receive an estimated 85 cents per dollar of Federal expenditure. Producers of commodities provided through TEFAP mandatory purchases receive about 27 cents per dollar. [ii] By contrast, only about 16 cents of every retail food dollar goes back to the farmer. [iii]


Food banks combine TEFAP commodities and storage and distribution funding with private donations of food and funds, infrastructure, and manpower to leverage the program far beyond its budgeted amount. In this way, TEFAP and the emergency food system exemplify an optimum model of public-private partnership.

USDA foods are typically only a small part of what a TEFAP recipient receives, whether in a bag of groceries or a prepared meal. TEFAP accounts for about 17.3% of the food moving through Feeding America’s national network of food banks. [iv] The remainder is provided by private donations from retailers, manufacturers, and individuals.

TEFAP also leverages a massive nonprofit infrastructure of warehouses, refrigerated trucks, kitchens, and other facilities, as well as trained staff and volunteers. About 68% of food pantries and 42% of soup kitchens in Feeding America’s network report relying entirely on volunteers and have no paid staff. [v] Feeding America network volunteers provided more than 7 million hours of service in 2009. [vi] If these volunteers were paid at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, their work would cost more than $50 million in additional wages. [vii]


TEFAP commodities are high in nutrition. A 2012 USDA study rated TEFAP foods at 88.9 [viii] on the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), significantly higher than the HEI score of 57.5 [ix] for the average American diet.

USDA selects healthful foods for TEFAP that are low in sugar, salt, and fat as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for example fruits canned in water or light syrup, low-sodium canned vegetables, and leaner meats.

Vegetables and fruits represent 33% of food by weight delivered through TEFAP, with proteins comprising another 33%. [x] Cereals, grains, starches, milk, and oil make up the remainder. [xi]

Over 85 different commodities are available through TEFAP, including: [xii]

  • Canned vegetables like green beans, carrots, peas, and tomatoes;
  • Canned fruits such as pears and peaches, dried fruits like raisins and dried plums, and applesauce;
  • Juices including apple, grapefruit, orange, and tomato;
  • Protein products including dried beans and lentils; peanut butter; canned tuna, salmon, and other meats; and frozen chicken, turkey, ground beef, and ham;
  • Soup, stew, and spaghetti sauce; and,
  • Pasta, rice, grits, and cereal as well as staple grains like flour and oats.


For recipients of TEFAP-supported groceries, States set criteria for determining which households are eligible to receive food for home consumption. States can adjust the income criteria in order to ensure that assistance is provided only to those households most in need. At the State’s discretion, income standards may be met through participation in other existing Federal, State, or local food, health, or welfare programs for which eligibility is based on income.

Recipients of TEFAP-supported prepared meals, such as clients of soup kitchens and emergency shelters, are considered to be needy and are not subject to a means test. However, the same clients must meet income eligibility requirements in order to receive TEFAP-supported groceries.


Over 200 Feeding America food banks around the country are working in partnership with 61,000 local agencies to distribute food in their communities. TEFAP accounts for approximately 17.3% [xiii] of the food moving through this national network, and about 90% [xiv] of Feeding America food banks are distributing TEFAP commodities, including mandatory commodities required by the Farm Bill, bonus commodity purchases made at the discretion of USDA in response to market conditions, and bonus specialty crop purchases mandated by the Farm Bill.


Because the variety and quantity of charitable food donations fluctuate month-to-month, TEFAP commodities provide a welcome base of food and enable emergency food providers to acquire types of items that may be lacking in donations from private entities. Unfortunately, the need for emergency food assistance has outpaced supply, in part because of sharp declines in TEFAP bonus commodities at a time of high unemployment, leaving food banks without a strong base supply of food.

Recent high food prices and strong agricultural markets required less USDA intervention in the agriculture economy. As a result, Feeding America food banks have seen a significant decline in TEFAP commodities (Figure 2). In fact, 97 percent of the Feeding America food banks receiving TEFAP commodities experienced a decline in TEFAP deliveries in 2012, and over half of these food banks had declines of 40 percent of more. [xv] This drop reduced the volume of food provided by TEFAP at a time when food banks are experiencing elevated need due to ongoing unemployment and reduced wages. Food banks are struggling to make up the difference, sometimes unable to fill order requests from local agencies. Such significant shortfalls between supply and demand could be prevented by making TEFAP commodity purchases responsive to unemployment levels so that the program operates in a more counter-cyclical fashion. tefap-figure2


  • The FY2013 Agriculture Appropriations bill should:
  • Provide $100 million for TEFAP Storage and Distribution Funds to support the infrastructure and distribution capacity necessary to meet current levels of need.
  • Fund TEFAP Infrastructure Grants at $15 million per year.
  • The 2012 Farm Bill should:
  • Increase mandatory TEFAP funding levels to keep up with increased demand and maintain inflationary peg.
  • Clarify the Secretary of Agriculture’s authority to purchase bonus commodities in times of high unemployment, high food insecurity, or regional or national disasters in addition to times of low commodity prices so the program is responsive to both excess supply and excess demand.
  • Reauthorize funding for TEFAP Storage and Distribution Funds at $100 million per year.
  • Reauthorize funding for TEFAP Infrastructure Grants at $15 million per year.


TEFAP Website:  

TEFAP Fact Sheets:

Carrie Calvert, Director of Tax and Commodity Policy:

Download TEFAP Program Overview PDF


[i] Feeding America analysis of USDA data, Federal Fiscal Year 2012.

[ii] Levedahl, J. William, Nicole Ballenger and Courtney Harold. Comparing the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Food Stamp Program. AER-689. USDA, ERS, June 1994.

[iii] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series: A Better Understanding of Our Food Costs, ERS No. 114, February 2011, 2008 Marketing Bill Series, Farm Share, Figure 2.

[iv] Feeding America, Food Sourcing data, Feeding America Fiscal Year 2012.

[v] Feeding America, Hunger In America 2010 National Report, January 2010.

[vi] Feeding America, Network Activity Report 2009, Member Staffing—Volunteers, Table OPS04.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Nutrient and MyPyramid Analysis of USDA Foods in Five of Its Food and Nutrition Programs, Table 3-43. January 2012. 

[ix] Cole, Nancy and Fox, Mary Kay. Diet Quality of Americans by Food Stamp Participation Status: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2004, Table C-10. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, July 2008, page C-34.

[x] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Nutrient and MyPyramid Analysis of USDA Foods in Five of Its Food and Nutrition Programs, Figure 3-10 (entitlement and bonus foods delivered). January 2012. 

[xi] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Nutrient and MyPyramid Analysis of USDA Foods in Five of Its Food and Nutrition Programs, Figure 3-10. January 2012. 

[xii] The full list of TEFAP foods and package sizes available for distribution in 2013 can be viewed at A full list of TEFAP commodities and their nutrition fact sheets is available at

[xiii] Feeding America, Food Sourcing data, Feeding America Fiscal Year 2012.

[xiv] Feeding America, National Activity Report, Feeding America calendar year 2012.

[xv] Feeding America analysis of USDA Data, Federal Fiscal Year 2011 and 2012.