WASHINGTON — More than 17.2 million households had difficulty feeding family members at some point last year, as the rate of "food insecurity" in the U.S. continued to hover at near-record levels, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Roughly one in three of these "food insecure" households — nearly 6.4 million in 2010 — had very low food security, in which consumption was reduced and eating patterns were disrupted.
Both categories of food hardship showed a slight improvement over their record levels in 2009. In fact, nearly 400,000 fewer households reported very low food insecurity last year compared with 2009.
But the still-elevated levels show that unemployment and the Great Recession continue to affect how millions of Americans eat.
Nearly 49 million people, about one in six, lived in food-insecure households last year, about the same number as in 2009.
The problem was worse in large cities and rural areas than in suburbs, and more prevalent among single-parent families and black and Hispanic households.
The report underscores the seriousness of the problem, said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at USDA.
"As long as hunger exists in this country of ours, we can and must do more," Concannon said. "We are a bountiful country where, clearly, hunger is unacceptable. And we have a moral imperative, really, to take action."
Concannon credited the 15 federal nutrition programs administered by the states for keeping the number of food-challenged Americans in check during the economic downturn.
Some 32 million low-income children get free or reduced-cost lunches through the federal National School Lunch Program. And a record 45 million-plus Americans received food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program.
Concannon said the rise in food stamp enrollment is exactly what lawmakers envisioned during economic downturns and they, likewise, expect enrollment to decline as the economy strengthens.
But under the Republican budget plan passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year, the food stamp program would be cut by 20 percent next year and converted to a block grant in 2015 that would cap program funding. Doing so would make the program unable to respond to large enrollment increases. That, in turn, could force states to cut benefits or create enrollment waiting lists during times of hardship.
The House Republican plan also cuts funding for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, which provides food for about 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women and children under age 5.
Republicans say the cuts are necessary to curb unsustainable program growth, but Concannon said he's concerned about the potential impact during a time of crisis.
"We are being good stewards of the American taxpayer dollars," Concannon said. "... Our message to Congress is these programs, which have been historically supported on a bipartisan basis, are operating as they should."
The annual survey, "Household Food Security in the United States in 2010," was conducted with 45,000 participants by the U.S. Census Bureau. It included a representative sample of the U.S. civilian population.
While accessing food wasn't a problem for 85.5 percent of U.S. households, 20 percent of households with children were found to face food insecurity. In these homes, the problem only affected adults, who ate less food so their children could have more.
But in 1 percent — or 386,000 homes — with very low food security, children's food intake was adversely affected.
Bill Shore, executive director of Share our Strength, a child-hunger organization, said school breakfast, lunch and after-school meals help kids fight hunger but only reach a fraction of eligible youngsters.
"These USDA numbers are a wakeup call for the nation's governors, who have the power to ensure that more children receive the food they need to grow up healthy, do well in school and keep America competitive," Shore said.
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