Fighting the Rising Tide of Hunger in America

New USDA Report Shows Growing Food Insecurity

Alexandra Cawthorne provides analysis of a new report from the USDA showing that more Americans were hungry in 2007—even before the economic downturn.

Central Virginia Food Bank CEO Fay Lohr examines bins of food at a Food Bank in Richmond. A new report from the USDA shows that hunger significantly increased in 2007. (AP/Steve Helber)
Central Virginia Food Bank CEO Fay Lohr examines bins of food at a Food Bank in Richmond. A new report from the USDA shows that hunger significantly increased in 2007. (AP/Steve Helber)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual report on food security in America yesterday, which showed that one in eight Americans—over 36 million people—struggled to feed themselves during 2007. And that was even before the economic downturn.

The number of hungriest Americans—those defined by the USDA as having very low food security—rose 40 percent since Bush entered office, from 8.5 million in 2000 to 11.9 million in 2007. The number of children in this category more than doubled last year to 691,000 and is the largest figure since 1998, when 716,000 children had very low food security. There is no doubt that the situation has worsened since then.

Children and adults living in families with incomes below the poverty line were at the greatest risk of hunger—37.7 percent of poor households were food insecure last year. Over a third of households headed by single mothers, 22 percent of black households, and 20 percent of Hispanic households lacked enough money and resources for food and faced hunger at far higher rates than the national average.

Converging economic problems, including increased food production and distribution costs associated with the global food crisis earlier this year, caused a 7.6 percent spike in food prices nationwide between September 2007 and September 2008. These higher food costs are most dramatic for lower-income Americans—during this period the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan (a USDA estimate of the cheapest necessary food) rose 10.3 percent.

Low-income households have faced shrinking governmental supports and paid more than wealthier households for the very same food items long before the spike in food prices. What may seem like a relatively small increase in the cost of food expenditures can significantly affect a low-income family’s ability to meet energy, housing, and health care costs, as well as to provide food for their families.

The current economic downturn is only boosting the number of people struggling to make ends meet and afford nutritious food. The USDA report’s findings should increase pressure on Congress to act urgently to bolster the hunger safety net, and provide the resources needed to help food aid catch up with the rising costs of food and pressure of the economic downturn. There are economic stimulus proposals in Congress to help do just that. The report also underlines the importance of longer-term action from President-elect Obama as part of his commitment to end childhood hunger by 2015.

The persistence and growth of hunger and food insecurity is one part of the broader need to reduce poverty in the United States. President-elect Obama has also committed to a measurable poverty-cutting goal, similar that of the the Center for American Progress’ Poverty Task Force and Half in Ten campaign goal of cutting poverty in half in 10 years. Acting on this goal would also significantly reduce the risk of hunger for millions of families nationwide.

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Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines

Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity