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‘Food hardship’ found to have reached post-recession low

Fewer Americans say they struggle with food affordability, but advocates say hunger crisis remains

The percentage of Americans struggling with “food hardship" is at its lowest point since before the beginning of the Great Recession, a Gallup-Healthways survey released Thursday suggests. Asked if there had “been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed," 15.8 of respondents to the poll, commissioned by the anti-hunger advocacy group Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), said “yes.”

When Gallup first began asking the question in early 2008, 16.7 percent of respondents said they had struggled with what FRAC describes as “food hardship.” That number rose to 17.1 percent last year.

FRAC researchers said a slowly recovering economy and falling unemployment were helping to bring down the food hardship rate. Food stamp disbursements — which were dramatically increased in 2008 as an emergency response to the economic collapse, only to be partially rolled back over the past two years — also softened nationwide hunger levels, said FRAC legal director Ellen Vollinger.

“Hunger is really a symptom of economic difficulty, so whether or not they have access to SNAP is one piece of whether they have greater resources for food,” Vollinger said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamp benefits. “But the fact that the economy has improved — not enough, but it has improved some — is an important factor."

The “food hardship” measure used by FRAC, determined by a single question on the affordability of food, is distinct from the official “food insecurity” metric the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses to track hunger nationwide. Food insecurity is judged based on a set of 18 questions, allowing the USDA to more closely observe the intensity of hunger across different regions and demographic groups, among other things. But the food hardship measure provides a more immediate snapshot of where things stand nationwide; the Gallup poll measures nationwide food hardship as of early 2015, whereas the most recent USDA figures on food insecurity are from 2013.

The food hardship measure, while significant, does not track whether “the intensity of need or the depth of need has increased," said Triada Stampas, vice president of Research and Public Affairs for Food Bank For New York City, America’s largest food bank.

“For some people, who in the depths of the recession were in need, they have fortunately moved on to a better place financially,” said Stampas. “But for a lot of folks, the need has remained and it has intensified."

As need persists and intensifies for some, food pantries and soup kitchens find they still have to grapple with unusually high demand. This is especially true for those emergency food service providers in areas with high concentrations of poverty. Stampas said that Food Bank For New York City research and reports from local food pantries have shown that pockets of high food insecurity exist around the city.

“What we’re finding is that there are parts of New York City that have a food insecurity rate of over 50 percent,” said Stampas.

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