49 million Americans, "had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during the year." (Photo: FunKa-Lerele)
Washington - As the World Food Security Summit got under way in Rome Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) disclosed that nearly one in six U.S. households went hungry at some time during 2008, the highest level since it began monitoring food security levels in 1995.
Altogether, 14.6 percent of households, or some 49 million people, "had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during the year", according to the report, "Household Food Security in the United States, 2008".
That marked a sharp increase from the 11.1 percent of households, or 36.2 million people, who found themselves in similar straits during 2007, according to the report whose lead author predicted that the percentage was likely to be higher in 2009 due to the ripple effects of the financial crisis that erupted 14 months ago.
Among the 17 million households that experienced hunger – or "food insecurity", as the report referred to it - during 2008, about one-third suffered "very low food security", meaning that the amount of food of at least some household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were substantially disrupted. Such households experienced such disruptions for at least a few days during seven or eight months of the year.
The other two-thirds were able to obtain enough food to avoid substantial disruptions by using a number of coping strategies, such as eating less varied diets, participating in government food and nutrition assistance programmes, or obtaining food from community food pantries or emergency kitchens.
And the number of households in which children, as well as adults, were subject to "very low food security" rose steeply – from 323,000 in 2007 to 506,000 last year, according to the report.
President Barack Obama released a statement from China, his latest stop on a week-long swing through Asia, which called the latest findings "unsettling".
"This trend was already painfully clear in many communities across our nation, where food stamp applications are surging and food pantry shelves are emptying," he said.
"It is particularly troubling that there were more than 500,000 families in which a child experienced hunger multiple times over the course of the year. Our children's ability to grow, learn, and meet their full potential – and therefore our future competitiveness as a nation – depends on regular access to healthy meals," he said, noting a number of steps taken by his administration to "revers(e) the trend of rising hunger."
Of the 49 million people who faced hunger on at least one occasion last year, 16.7 million were children, according to the report. That was 4.2 million more than in 2007 and the highest on record since 1995.
"The data released today is not surprising," said David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World, a national anti-hunger group that also carries out programmes in poor countries. "What should really shock us is that almost one in four children in our country lives on the brink of hunger."
Feeding America, the largest U.S. food-relief organisation, said the USDA's latest statistics squared with its own experience in local communities where it runs some 200 food banks that feed more than 25 million people each year.
"It is tragic that so many people in this nation of plenty don't have access to adequate amounts of nutritious food," said Vicki Escarra, the group's president and CEO.
"Although these new numbers are staggering, it should be noted that they reflect the state of the nation one year ago, in 2008," she said. "Since then, the economy has significantly weakened, and there are likely many more people struggling with hunger than this report states."
She noted that some of the group's food banks, which supply food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency feeding centres, have reported increases of more than 50 percent in requests for emergency food aid over the past year.
"National socio-economic indicators, including the escalating unemployment rate and the number of working poor, lead us to believe that the number of people facing hunger will continue to rise significantly over the coming year," Escarra said.
The official unemployment rate exceeded 10 percent last month for the first time since the early 1980s, while former Labour Secretary Robert Reich estimated the "unofficial" unemployment rate – which includes people who have given up looking for work or who are under-employed – to be as high as 20 percent.
"Research on previous recessions indicates that people who fall into the grips of poverty in a time of recession do not recover financially," Escarra said. "Many of those people are likely to be in need of our services now or in the future."
Food insecurity, according to the new report, correlated closely to households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line of some 22,050 dollars for a family of four, single-parent households, and African-American and Hispanic households.
It found that food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas then in suburbs and was most prevalent in the southeastern part of the country.
Under Obama, the government has significantly increased funding for food stamps, emergency food aid, and school lunch programmes. In his statement, Obama said he hoped to provide more support next year.
"The survey suggested that things could be much worse but for the fact that we have extensive food assistance programmes," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday. "This is a great opportunity to put a spotlight on this problem."
Beckmann agreed. "The recession has made the problem of hunger worse, and it has also made it more visible," he said. "Increased public awareness and the administration's commitment give me hope. To end hunger, our leaders need to strengthen nutrition programmes and provide steady jobs that allow parents to escape the cycle of poverty and feed their families for years to come."