One in Six Americans in Households Struggling Against Hunger

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New National and State Data Underscore Need for Congress to Keep Federal Nutrition Programs Strong, Says FRAC

More than 48.8 million Americans lived in households struggling against hunger in 2010, according to new data released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its annual report on food insecurity. Of them, 16.2 million are children (21.6 percent of all children). Previously, in 2009, 50.2 million Americans were in food insecure households.

The 2010 numbers, virtually across-the-board, were flat or better than in 2009, though still about one-third higher than in 2007, before the recession wreaked havoc with America’s low-income and working families.

“One crucial factor stabilizing hunger rates in 2009 and 2010 has been the growth in SNAP participation and the important boost in SNAP benefits that the President and Congress put in place,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. In fact, analyses over the last year from the Census Bureau, USDA, and FRAC have shown that SNAP has helped keep poverty and food insecurity rates from climbing further.

But while more and more struggling families have been receiving help from SNAP and school meals, the bad economy continues to overwhelm them. This underscores the continuing need for the President, Congress, and the states to keep the federal nutrition programs strong at the same time that they act to bring down unemployment and boost wages, said Weill.

Analyzing the numbers, FRAC noted that one number that captures well the trends is the number of people in households “with very low food security” – households with the deepest struggles, skipping meals, or cutting the amounts eaten below what is needed. That number rose from 7.8 million in 1999 to 11.9 million in 2007 – eight years of modest but inexorable growth in hunger. Then it jumped to 17.3 million in 2008, and rose again in 2009 (to 17.7 million), before finally falling, for the first time in 11 years, to 16.1 million in 2010. This number of people in the worst-off households captures the story of the nation for lower-income people for more than a decade: slow worsening before the recession; a huge battering by the recession; and now a slight improvement bolstered by the safety net.

Other findings from the USDA report include:

  •     There was progress in the food insecurity rate of households with children (falling from 21.3 percent in 2009 to 20.2 percent in 2010). But the rate among households without children rose from 11.4 percent to 11.7 percent.
  •     Food insecurity was particularly high in the 16 states with rates at 15 percent or higher for 2008-2010: Mississippi (19.4); Texas (18.8); Arkansas (18.6); Alabama (17.3); Georgia (16.9); Ohio (16.4); Oklahoma (16.4); Florida (16.1); California (15.9); Missouri (15.8); North Carolina (15.7); Kentucky (15.6); Maine (15.4); New Mexico (15.4); Arizona (15.3); and Tennessee (15). USDA uses three year averages for states to obtain adequate sample sizes.
  •     Most states saw an increase in food insecurity, demonstrating the depth and impact of the recession. In fact, some of the states with the largest growth in food insecurity from before the recession (2005-2007) to during the recession (2008-2010) were the states hardest hit by the housing collapse or soaring joblessness: California, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

“Millions of Americans continue to struggle to put food on the table. It is time to strengthen, not weaken the nation’s safety net. Congress must support job creation while protecting the federal nutrition programs against deficit cutting measures. SNAP (food stamps), child nutrition, and senior nutrition programs, as well as other parts of the safety net that help low-income people, are more important every month,” said Weill.

The USDA 2010 numbers released today show the same pattern as FRAC’s 2010 and early 2011 analyses of Gallup poll data on food hardship (the ability to afford enough food), which found for 2009 and 2010 that the number of struggling families had flattened out after a big initial jump in 2008.

“We continue to see evidence of the struggles facing Americans, and Congress should not add to their pain by cutting vital safety net programs,” said Weill. “There’s a reason that every bipartisan deficit reduction plan proposed over the past year – including the Simpson-Bowles Commission and the Gang of Six – has made sure to keep these programs intact and protected from cuts.”

Visit FRAC's website at http://www.frac.org for ongoing analysis.

About the USDA Report

Since 1995, the United States Department of Agriculture, using data from surveys conducted annually by the Census Bureau, has released estimates of the number of people in households that are food insecure. Food insecure households are those that are not able to afford an adequate diet at all times in the past 12 months. The report also includes food insecurity rates for each state, but for states it uses three-year averages to give a better estimate of the number of households experiencing food insecurity. Experts agree that the Census/USDA measure of food insecurity is a conservative one, with the result that only households experiencing substantial food insecurity are so classified.

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