Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post / Getty Images

US household food security fails to improve

New government report covers depth of hunger and malnutrition problems, which remain at historically high levels

More U.S. households are having a hard time putting food on the table than before the recession. But there is a sliver of hope: The numbers are not going up.

In 2013, 14.3 percent of households (17.5 million) experienced varying degrees of food insecurity, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The change from 2012 was not statistically significant, but the latest research shows a slight dip since 2011, when 14.9 percent of households suffered from hunger or poor nutrition.

“It’s a matter of interpretation if you think it’s good news or bad news,” said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, lead researcher with the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “We didn’t find anything that got worse. Basically, it seems like things are holding steady or improving a little bit, but it’s not down to those prerecession levels.”

In 2013 there was not enough food for families at various times during the year in 6.8 million homes, or 5.6 percent of households. In 3.8 million homes, families were not able to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children. But the number of homes with kids who experienced hunger has dropped a bit since 2011.

“What people don’t realize is that the rate of insecure households with children under 6 actually increased,” said Mariana Chilton, director of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities and an associate professor in the School of Public Health.

Hunger in young children affects cognitive, developmental and social skills, she said. “We’re watching our kids get truncated from a very early age,” said Chilton. “Nutrition assistance programs are not enough to meet the actual needs of the American public … Very depressing.” An across-the-board 5 percent cut in benefits to food stamps recipients that went into effect in November signals that “the worst is yet to come.” 

‘What people don’t realize is that the rate of insecure households with children under 6 actually increased.’

Mariana Chilton

director, Center for Hunger-Free Communities

Very low food security means that some family members sometimes went hungry during the year because there was not enough money to buy food. Another concern, albeit a less serious serious one, is a decline in the quality of the food but with few members of the household suffering hunger.

Shortage of food is more likely in homes where children are raised by a single mother and where people are living alone. Black and Hispanic households and homes with incomes below the poverty line suffer more. “Why do the racial and ethnic disparities continue to persist?” Chilton asked. “There is no movement. [Blacks and Hispanics] are suffering at three times the rate of white households. That’s unacceptable.”

Hunger is more prevalent in rural areas and large cities than in suburbs and exurbs. The lack of food is higher than the national average in eight states, many in the South. Arkansas had the highest and North Dakota the lowest.

That comes as no surprise to Susan Fuller, secretary treasurer of Brother’s Keeper Ministries in Poplarville, Mississippi, a rural town in Pearl River County, about 45 miles from the coast.

The group’s pantry distributed food to 1,328 people in August. “The numbers have exploded since Hurricane Katrina, said Fuller, referring to the 2005 deadly storm that devastated the Gulf Coast. The day after Labor Day, “it was wall-to-wall people. It’s the working poor and chronically unemployed, people with food stamps, people who can’t support their families. They can’t feed their families on what they make.”

Joseph Holland, a food policy expert at the University of Mississippi’s Department of Public Policy Leadership, said there are growing efforts to address nutrition and hunger in Southern communities.

“There’s some slight movement in trying to correct this from a local level,” he said. He points to local efforts to link food stamp recipients to farmers’ markets and farm-to-school programs that provide nutritional education and healthy foods to schoolkids. “Local markets are a tool that can help utilize and enhance access to healthy foods.” 

Despite these programs, Holland said, the problems are multifaceted. In many households, parents are juggling two or three jobs and may not have time to cook.

“It’s a major public health crisis that continues to go unaddressed and is not taken seriously by the American public and government,” Chilton said. “Congress is not paying enough attention. The administration is not paying enough attention … We can do better. We can raise the minimum wage. We can target food stamp programs to reach families that are really struggling.”

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