Hunger problem in US eased in 2015, USDA report shows

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2016 - The number of U.S. households where people don't get enough to eat dropped significantly last year, but the level of food insecurity still remains higher than before the 2008 recession, according to a USDA report.

The latest edition of the food insecurity report from USDA's Economic Research Service concludes that 12.7 percent of U.S. households - about 15.8 million -  experienced food insecurity at some point in 2015, down from 14 percent in 2014 and an even steeper drop from a high of 14.9 percent in 2011.

The number of food insecure households skyrocketed after 2007. In that pre-recession year only about 13 million households were considered food insecure, but that number jumped by about 31 percent to 17 million in 2008.

Lets Talk Food

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack lauded the report's finding, calling the decrease a victory for the Obama administration.

"Today's report marks a significant benchmark in our battle against hunger and food insecurity, underscoring in clear terms that our nation's families and children are better off today than they were when the president took office in 2009,” Vilsack said. “In fact, today's report points to the lowest figures on record for food insecurity among children - a major achievement in our country's efforts to ensure every child has a safer, healthier future filled with unlimited opportunity.”

The reduction in the level of children not getting enough to eat is a particularly bright spot in the report, said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).

“The number of households with food-insecure children is now the lowest it's been since these reports started in 1998,” Weill told Agri-Pulse.

About 7.8 percent of U.S. households - roughly 3 million - were home to children who either struggled to get food or didn't get enough to eat in 2015, the USDA report concluded. That's down from 9.4 percent, or 3.7 million households, in 2014.

Still, the report says about 274,000 households with children experienced “very low” food security conditions, where caregivers reported that children “were hungry, skipped a meal, or did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food.”

While the numbers of people with not enough to eat are dropping, Vilsack stressed that federal food assistance programs are still vitally important.

“The figures released today also remind us that our work to fight for access to healthy food for our nation's most vulnerable families and individuals is far from over,” Vilsack said. “We must work to preserve the critical Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which prevented millions of Americans from falling into poverty or becoming food insecure during the most difficult stretches of the recession.”

Data in the report show that only about 59 percent of households that reported food insecurity participated in federal assistance programs such as SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or free or reduced school lunches.

There are several reasons why the other 41 percent of households reporting food insecurity did not use the programs, Weill said, including the fact that many are just not eligible. State eligibility requirements differ widely for SNAP, he said, and when families fail to qualify for that program they often cannot get help in paying for school lunches for their children.

Also, many states have recently begun reinstating time limits on how long childless adults can receive SNAP. These people, officially calledablebodied adults without dependents,” can only receive SNAP for three months in a three-year span if they do not meet work requirements.

Some of the survey-based numbers that came out today are likely off simply because people sometimes feel ashamed to admit they need the help in a society that often stigmatizes SNAP and other programs, Weill said.

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“A lot of people who are eligible and who are participating do not like to tell the Census Bureau or other surveyors that they are participating in the programs,” he said.

Food assistance programs raise millions of Americans out of poverty, Weill said, but stressed that improving federal aid is only part of the solution.

We know what it takes to end hunger in this country, so there can be no more excuses,” he said. “More must be done to raise employment rates and wages, and to protect and strengthen federal nutrition programs to ensure more low-income Americans get the nutrition they need for their health and well-being.”

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