WASHINGTON — The number of U.S. households that are struggling to feed their members jumped by 4 million to 17 million last year, as recession-fueled job losses and increased poverty and unemployment fueled a surge in hunger, a government survey reported Monday.
These "food-insecure" households represent about 49 million people and make up 14.6 percent, or more than one in seven, of all U.S. households. That's the highest rate since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began monitoring the issue in 1995.
Additionally, more than one-third of these struggling families — some 6.7 million households, or 17.2 million people last year — had "very low food security," in which food intake was reduced and eating patterns were disrupted for some family members because of a lack of food.
In phone interviews, more than two-thirds of people with very low food security said they went hungry from time to time, and 27 percent of these adults said they didn't eat at all some days.
These families make up 5.7 percent of U.S. households, again the highest rate since 1995, up from 4.1 percent and 4.7 million households in 2007.
In a statement, President Barack Obama called the report unsettling and said it was particularly troubling that there were more than 500,000 families in which children experienced hunger multiple times last year.
Obama said his administration was "committed to reversing the trend of rising hunger" and that restoring job growth would "help relieve the economic pressures that make it difficult for parents to put a square meal on the table each day."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the situation would be far worse for many more Americans were it not for food pantries and federal food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Vilsack said the findings were consistent with the nation's dire economic climate and that next year's report probably would show a worsening situation due to continued job losses and rising unemployment.
Vilsack said the findings from the annual USDA survey of 44,000 households were a "wake-up call for America."
"As many American families begin to make preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday it is time for us to remember that, unfortunately, 49 million Americans may not be able to celebrate Thanksgiving in the way they ought to be able to celebrate it," Vilsack said.
The report found that 85.4 percent of U.S. households were "food secure" throughout last year, meaning that all household members had consistent access to enough food for active, healthy lives.
Single-parent families, low-income households, African-Americans and Latinos were more likely to experience food insecurities, report co-author Mark Nord said. Married families, childless households with two or more adults and elderly households were less likely.
Most of the 17 million "food insecure" households avoid long-term eating disruptions, but they rely on cheaper, less nutritious foods and eat the same things several days in a row, Nord said. Families in the "very low food security" group experience severe and prolonged bouts of hunger.
Food insecurity, measured at the state level from 2006 to 2008, was lowest in North Dakota, at 6.9 percent, and highest in Mississippi, at 17.4 percent. "Very low" food security was also lowest in North Dakota during this period, 2.6 percent, and highest in Mississippi, at 7.4 percent.
Vilsack said the report underscored the need to reauthorize and boost funding for child nutrition programs such as the Summer Food Service Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Vilsack is to testify Tuesday at a hearing on their reauthorization before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
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