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US Food Insecurity Reaches Record High

A woman who only gave her first name, Ally, said it was her first time applying for food stamps - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - at a city building in El Cajon, Calif., May 2010 (file photo)

Record-high numbers of Americans had trouble putting food on the table last year. That's according to new numbers released this week by the U.S. Agriculture Department. One relative bright spot in the report: the numbers held steady even as the U.S. economy suffered through its worst recession in decades.

Nearly one in six Americans struggled to afford food in 2009, according to the USDA, which said the figures are the highest since it began conducting the survey in 1998.

Nearly 9 million children had to eat less-healthy foods, smaller portions - or skip meals entirely - because balanced meals were too expensive.

But even as unemployment climbed from 5 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2009, the figures on food insecurity remained fairly steady.

USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon said that's because of the federal safety-net program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which now enrolls 42 million people.

"That represents about a 58 percent increase in enrollment over a three-year period," said Concannon. "That three years coincides very much with the onset of the recession."

As the recession deepened, the 2009 federal stimulus bill put nearly $60 billion into SNAP.

Executive Director Deborah Weinstein of the advocacy group the Coalition on Human Needs, said the spending boost was a wise investment.

"We know how crucial adequate nutrition is for young children's health and development. And because helping families to buy food means purchases in stores around the nation, economists have from the start recognized that more SNAP boosts the economy," Weinstein said.

But Weinstein is concerned that boost might end, even as the economy continues to stagnate. Congress is considering legislation that would cut SNAP beginning in 2013, in order to pay for increases in other child nutrition programs.

SNAP advocates say that's like an animal biting off its leg to get out of a trap.

But conservatives are critical of the huge increases in spending on food stamps and other welfare programs under the Obama administration. They see the growth of the government and the $1.3-trillion federal deficit as stifling economic recovery.

The child nutrition bill is one of many awaiting action as the outgoing Congress wraps up its business before the end of the year.