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USDA: Hunger Threatens 1 in 7 Americans

The number of Americans struggling to put food on the table remains stuck at historic highs, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One in seven U.S. households — 14.3 percent — was food insecure last year. That figure is unchanged from 2012 and down just four-tenths of one percentage point since the recession ended in 2009.

“It is the highest food insecurity rate that we’ve seen,” said report co-author Alisha Coleman-Jensen. “And it’s been relatively stable. It hasn’t come down as the recession officially ended,” which is unusual during an economic recovery."

“I have a million-dollar question: Who’s recovering? Because I’m not seeing the population that’s recovering,” said Wessita McKinley, founder of Sistas United, a small non-profit just outside Washington that runs a food pantry and other services.

McKinley says about twice as many families are coming to her for help now compared to before the recession.

Working poor

And it’s not just the unemployed who are struggling. A survey by Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks, found nearly three-quarters of their clients were living in poverty, even though more than half had jobs.

“It doesn’t matter if you work or not," said Grace Davis, a client at Sistas United. "You just don’t have enough money to survive.”

Davis is a preschool teacher at a program for children whose parents are in drug rehabilitation. But the job does not pay much. She said this weekend she did not have enough food to make breakfast for herself and her son.

“So I said, ‘Well, I’ll save the eggs for him.’ And I just drank water and ate bread.” she said.

Nearly seven million households nationwide had to sacrifice food for at least one member last year, according to the USDA study. That figure has not changed since 2009.

Rising food costs

The cost of eating was one major factor keeping food insecurity rates high. Though overall inflation has been relatively low in recent years, the price of food rose faster than other goods and services, according to USDA’S Coleman-Jensen.

Meanwhile, an Economic Policy Institute study found wages have not been keeping pace, especially for low-wage workers.

“After you pay your electric bill, your car [payment], put gas in the car, you don’t really have extra money for food,” said Sistas United client Sarah Auth. “And if you try to eat healthy, healthy food is very expensive.”

But even cheap food can be expensive in the long run, said Nancy Roman, head of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington.

“People who don’t eat well have much higher incidences of diet-related diseases” such as diabetes and heart conditions, she said.

Fifty-eight percent of households in the Feeding America survey have a member with high blood pressure, and a third have a member with diabetes. CAFB is a member of the Feeding America network.

At Sistas United, Wessita McKinley said she has seen people in her community turning to extreme measures to avoid hunger — from prostitution to theft to suicide.

“We’re supposed to be a super-nation, a superpower. We’re supposed to be the richest nation,” she said. “Why are we having hungry people in the street?”

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.