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September 06, 2011

One in Seven US Households Struggles to Afford Food

by Steve Baragona

More than 17 million American households had trouble affording adequate food in 2010, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That's basically unchanged from 2009, but up sharply from 13 million in 2007.

"This report today underscores what we know: that household food insecurity remains a serious problem in the United States," says USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.

The USDA report shows the lingering effects of a bad economy. More people have struggled to afford adequate food ever since the economy crashed in late 2007. About one in ten households had trouble affording food that year. In 2008, that figure went up to one in seven. The new report shows it has stayed there ever since.

"Slow-moving disaster"

"This is a disaster. It's a slow-moving disaster," says Dave Krepcho, head of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which provides food for 3.5 million people in six Florida counties.

Krepcho knows about disasters. When hurricanes hit the state -- as they do fairly often -- Second Harvest helps distribute food to people in need. Four hurricanes struck Florida in 2004. But those were short-term events.

"For the past two years," he says, "our monthly distribution exceeds...our disaster relief after four hurricanes criss-crossed the state. Every single month is beyond that."

One relative bright spot in the USDA report is that the number of households in the most which someone actually went hungry declined slightly last year, from 6.8 million to 6.4 million.

Private sector steps up

Donations from the private sector have helped take food banks take on some of the extra burden, says spokesman Ross Fraser with the Feeding America national network of food banks.

"Corporate America has really stepped forward and has helped us both with food and with funds," he says.

Major supermarket chains, big retailers and food manufacturers have made big donations in the last few years, according to Fraser, and farm groups contributed 270 million kilograms of fresh produce in the last year alone.

"For a hunger relief organization to be able to provide fresh produce to low-income Americans for whom produce is often out of reach financially has been tremendously helpful," he adds.

Federal programs grow...and get cut

Aid from the federal government kept the number of hungry people from increasing despite persistent unemployment, says USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon.

"To me, it is a reflection of the impact of these 15 federal nutrition programs that are working as has been intended over many, many years," he says. "They are intended to meet the critical needs of families struggling to put food on the table until they can get back on their feet."

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest of those federal programs, enrolled nearly 19 million households last year. That's up from almost 12 million in 2007.

But advocates are concerned about next year as Congress discusses major cuts to the federal budget. The House of Representatives passed a budget cutting 10 percent from a $6 billion nutrition program for pregnant women and young children. House leaders say the budget reflects tough choices that reduce the massive federal deficit.

Anti-hunger advocates disagree with those choices. "We can reduce the U.S. federal deficit without making hungry people hungrier," says David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. "It's just not right to attack programs that help people that are struggling to feed their kids."

The Senate has not passed its version of the bill yet. Beckmann says his group and others are hoping to convince lawmakers to spare social safety net programs from further cuts.

But with the federal debt nearing $15 trillion, many in Congress say everything is on the table.