USDA: Despite slight improvement, hunger persists

Joel Berg, an antihunger activist, noted the report was released amid soaring stock prices.
Joel Berg, an antihunger activist, noted the report was released amid soaring stock prices. (KATHRYN KIRK)
Posted: September 05, 2014

High rates of hunger persisted in the United States in 2013, with 49 million Americans - 16 million of them children - unable to consistently eat nutritious food.

In 360,000 U.S. households, conditions were so severe that children skipped meals, or didn't eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food.

Overall, levels of hunger remained essentially unchanged between 2012 and 2013, although hunger declined slightly between 2011 and 2013.

The findings are from a federal annual report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Household Food Security in the United States in 2013," the official measure of hunger in America.

Food security is a USDA term referencing consistent access to enough nutritious food in a year to live a healthy lifestyle. A food-insecure household suffers from a lack of such consistent access.

Throughout the nation, 14.3 percent of households were food insecure in 2013.

People who are food insecure don't have enough money for food and often worry about where the next meal is coming from. Frequently, food-insecure people are compelled to buy cheap food that's low on nutrition and high in calories.

In other findings, the report shows that rates of food insecurity for white, non-Hispanic households were 10.6 percent, notably below the national average of 14.3 percent.

For black households, it was 26 percent, nearly twice the national average. For Hispanic households, the rate of food insecurity was almost 24 percent.

In households with children headed by a single woman, the rate was 34.4 percent.

Nearly 35 percent of low-income households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (more than $35,000 annually for a family of three) experienced food insecurity.

In Pennsylvania, conditions were better than the national average, with household food insecurity dipping slightly from an average of 12.5 percent calculated for the years 2008 through 2010, to an average of 11.9 percent between 2011 and 2013.

In New Jersey, the numbers went from 12.1 percent food insecurity to 11.4 percent in the same set of years, the report shows.

Experts say that the economies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey are better than those of many U.S. states that suffered disproportionately during the recession.

Still, the small decreases in food insecurity recorded in Pennsylvania and New Jersey "are not a mark of success," noted Kathy Fisher, policy manager with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

She also pointed to federal figures that show that since the beginning of the century, overall food insecurity in Pennsylvania has increased by 2.4 percentage points. In New Jersey, it went up 2.8 percentage points.

And the number of those living in very low food security - when people are missing meals and living in dire straits - nearly doubled in Pennsylvania between 2001 and 2013, from 2.6 percent to 4.8 percent. In New Jersey, very low food security increased from 3.1 percent to 4.8 percent in the same period.

"Families are still very much at risk," said Mariana Chilton, a national expert on hunger who teaches at Drexel University's School of Public Health.

Chilton blamed federal policy, adding: "The American government has been lazy and unable to think of anything to help families with food insecurity. We've done nothing creative or targeted with U.S. policy toward hunger."

Her thoughts echoed those of national antihunger expert Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Berg noted that Wednesday's hunger figures were released amid a backdrop of soaring stock prices and boom times for the top 1 percent of U.S. earners.

"A country that combines massive hunger with record Wall Street markets is so derailed, we can't even find our tracks anymore," he said. "These startling numbers prove there has been no true economic recovery for tens of millions of struggling U.S. families."

That struggle is amply demonstrated in Philadelphia's more impoverished districts, Chilton said.

In North Philadelphia, for example, 20.3 percent of households were food insecure in 2013, almost twice the statewide figure. In 2007, North Philadelphia's food insecurity rate was 15 percent.

The data are based on research Drexel conducts at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia, in conjunction with Children's HealthWatch, a nonpartisan network of pediatricians, public health researchers, and children's health and policy experts in five cities.

On a nationwide scale, the USDA report is "simply appalling given how rich this country is," according to Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, America's largest antihunger advocacy group, headquartered in Washington.

"This is a problem this country can't afford to live with."

Weill added that "hunger has a cure because it's a political condition." He was referencing what he sees as the nation's inability or unwillingness to raise wages and create more jobs.

Weill also said that food stamps aren't adequate, citing studies that show that typical allotments to families aren't enough to pay for all the food needed in a month.

Chilton said "things will only get worse" when next year's hunger figures come out, since the federal government cut $5 billion from the food-stamp program (now known as SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) on Nov. 1, 2013. It was the equivalent of eliminating 1.9 billion meals nationwide in fiscal 2014, federal figures reveal. Those cuts weren't fully reflected in the USDA report, Chilton said.

The USDA report is compiled from 18 hunger-related questions asked in a survey of 42,147 households by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2013. That number is considered to be a representative sample of America's 123 million households, according to the USDA.

Responding to the report, Billy Shore, founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit aimed at ending childhood hunger, said that the findings continue a trend of high child food-insecurity numbers.

He concluded, "At a time when the world is ever more dangerous, we must recognize that we can't have a strong nation with weak kids."


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