Washington - Record numbers of U.S. households struggled at times to feed their families last year, according to a report Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the state of hunger in America.
A lack of resources forced others to cut back on meals and disrupt their usual eating patterns, it says.
A record 17.9 million U.S. households – 700,000 more than in 2010 – didn't have enough food at all times last year to sustain active, healthy lives for all family members, according to the USDA.
This "food insecurity" affected a record 14.9 percent of U.S. households and more than 50 million people, about one in six U.S. residents.
Moreover, more than one in three "food insecure" households – 6.8 million – had "very low food security," meaning that one or more family members cut back on eating last year because of a lack of either money or other access to food, according to the report. That's an increase of 400,000 households over 2010.
After falling to 5.4 percent in 2010, the percentage of households with very low food security jumped to 5.7 percent last year, matching the record levels in 2008 and 2009 at the height of the economic collapse, the USDA reported.
The affect on children was significant. Nearly 9 million children lived in food-insecure households last year, and 845,000 were in households with very low food security.
"These numbers show the impact of the recession has not gone away yet." said Jim Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit anti-hunger group. " . . . It's one thing to say that wages are flat. But it's something else to say that people aren't getting enough to eat."
The findings in the annual USDA survey, "Household Food Security in the United States in 2011," show that hunger is one of the most persistent and widespread aftereffects of the Great Recession, which claimed 8.7 million U.S. jobs.
While 85 percent of households have adequate access to food, the report says, soup kitchens and food banks across the nation have seen dramatic increases in requests for assistance.
The survey was conducted on a representative sample of the U.S. population. It found that most households – regardless of race, gender, age and family size – generally spent less on food last year than they did in 2010, said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, a USDA sociologist and the lead author of the report.
But food insecurity rates were highest among households with children, those headed by single parents and those with black and Hispanic families.
The survey data comes as congressional Republicans, led by GOP vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, push for massive cuts in food stamp-program funding to curb enrollment growth and to help balance the federal budget. The Democratic-controlled Senate also voted in June to cut food stamp funding, but by a smaller amount.
"With so many of our neighbors, friends and family worrying about where their next meal may be coming from, now is not the time to use federal nutrition programs as a trading chip to balance the budget," said Matt Knott, the interim president of Feeding America, the nation's largest anti-hunger organization.
Indeed, food stamp enrollment has almost doubled, from a monthly pre-recession average of 26.3 million people in 2007 to 46.4 million people so far this year.
That growth coincides with an even larger increase in jobless Americans, from 7.6 million when the recession first hit in December 2007 to 15.4 million by October 2009. Nearly 12.8 million Americans were still unemployed as of this July.
The Congressional Budget Office expects food stamp enrollment to fall back to pre-recession levels as the economy improves.
Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted to convert food stamps to a block grant in 2015 that would cap funding.
The USDA survey found that household food-insecurity rates varied significantly among the states, ranging from 7.8 percent in North Dakota from 2009 through 2011 to 19.2 percent in Arkansas and Mississippi over the same period.
The USDA offers 15 nutrition-assistance programs for needy families, which reach one in four people during the year. Nearly 60 percent of food-insecure households in the survey reported participating in one or more federal nutrition programs in the previous month.
"USDA's nutrition-assistance programs connect these households with access to healthy food and nutrition education, providing a vital safety net for low-income households working their way to self-sufficiency as the economy continues to recover," said Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.