The number of Americans who struggled to get enough food last year remained at a record high, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
More than 50 million Americans lived in households that had a hard time getting enough to eat at least at some point during 2009. That includes 17 million children, and at least a half-million of those children faced the direst conditions. They had inadequate diets, or even missed meals, because their families didn't have enough money for food.
"Household food insecurity remains a serious problem across the United States," says Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon.
He says there's a reason the hunger numbers hit a record high in 2008 and stayed there in 2009: a struggling economy.
"It is a considerable reflection of what is going on in the economy," he says. "So jobs, employment, the overall economic health of the country are a major portion of it."
Record Growth In Food Stamp Program
But why, then, didn't the numbers go even higher in the last year, when millions more Americans were out of work and poverty was on the rise?
It appears that the main reason is the record growth in the use of the food stamp program, according to Concannon and others. That's something that the cashier at the Super Saver Grocery and Deli in Washington, D.C., says she's seen with her customers. She would only give her name as Mama.
"Yeah, they use it more than last year unexpected people," she says.
Unexpected, says the cashier, because those using food stamps here are better dressed than they used to be. In fact, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits which food stamps are now called have become pretty mainstream over the past year and a half. Forty-two million Americans, or 1 in 8, now use them.
"I think if there was ever evidence that SNAP is critical, this is it," says Elaine Waxman, a vice president with Feeding America, the nation's leading food bank network. She notes that the food stamp program was expanded last year by Congress as part of the economic recovery bill, and she says it clearly has helped contain hunger.
"As we said, the numbers didn't go in the direction we expected," she says. "I think it's largely a tribute to the role of the safety net."
And it's not only food stamps. About a million more children got free and reduced-price meals at school last year.
Critics Suggest Problem Is Overblown
All this is bound to come up over the next few weeks as Congress debates reauthorizing and expanding the school lunch and other child nutrition programs. The $4.5 billion bill has stalled over a proposal to pay for an expansion now by trimming future food stamp benefits.
Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger group, says he thinks those cuts make even less sense in light of Monday's report.
"It's our hope and expectation that in the lame-duck [session], Congress will pass the child nutrition bill and do the SNAP restoration and we think there's going to be an opportunity to do both," he says.
But there's also a lot of pressure to cut government spending, which Republicans say is hurting the very economic growth that's needed to reduce hunger. And some people think the extent of the problem has been overblown.
"They clearly exaggerate these numbers for political effect," says Robert Rector, a poverty expert with the Heritage Foundation.
Rector says many of the people whom the government says are facing hunger might in fact have only missed one meal during the course of the year. And he says the vast majority of those considered "food insecure" as the government puts it barely had to cut back at all.
"It's regrettable that these households have temporary food shortages that mean they have to eat less in a given day or given week," he says. "But it is certainly not a condition of chronic undernutrition or chronic food shortages."
And he says he worries that what might be a temporary setback for some families will lead to a permanent increase in government spending on food aid.