Economy Slowly Recovers but Millions Still Hungry

By Helly Lee

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its Household Food Security in the United States in 2013 report, which revealed that more than 49.1 million people (or 14.3 percent of households), including 15.8 million children, struggled with food insecurity in 2013. Those with food insecurity had difficulty at some time during the year in providing enough food for all their household members due to a lack of resources. These numbers are a slight change (but not statistically significant) from the 14.5 percent of households that were food insecure in 2012. In 2013, 6.8 million households (5.6 percent) faced very low food security, meaning that one or more household members experienced reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns at times during the year.

While the food insecurity rates were largely unchanged from the previous year, the report shows that there’s still much to be done to alleviate hunger across the country. Food insecurity remains significantly higher than the 11.1 percent rate in 2007 before the recession.

The rates and severity of food insecurity also vary by location. For example, states like Arkansas (21.2 percent), Mississippi (21.1 percent) and Texas (18 percent) ranked highest among food-insecure households, well above the national rate.

There are also large disparities in the rates of food insecurity across racial and ethnic categories. While 10.6 percent of White, non-Hispanic households experienced food insecurity in 2013 (below the national rate of 14.3 percent), Black (26.1 percent) and Hispanic (23.7 percent) households experienced significantly higher food insecurity than the national rate and more than double that of White households.

Households with children also experienced food insecurity at a much higher rate (19.5 percent). This is concerning because scientific evidence shows that children need to have adequate nutrition to excel in school and grow. Recent research by Children’s HealthWatch reveals that, when compared to children under the age of four who were food secure, young children at risk of food insecurity were 56 percent more likely to be in fair or poor health, and 60 percent were more likely to be at risk for developmental delays. 

The release of USDA’s report is a reminder that while the economy is slowly recovering, millions still struggle to make ends meet and put food on the table. Federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program remain critical supports for families and children who do not have access to adequate nutrition. However, even as the needs remain, continued threats can weaken the reach of these vital programs. In November 2013, nearly every SNAP household endured a cut when Congress failed to enact legislation to extend the 2009 Recovery Act’s boost (a maximum monthly benefit increase by 13.6 percent) to the benefits, further compromising the food security of households already struggling economically.

Congress has the opportunity to strengthen vital federal child nutrition programs in the upcoming year through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act and through steadfast protection of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in future policymaking.