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USDA Report Monitors Food Security Among U.S. Households

For some Americans, making ends meet is a struggle even in a strong economy. These households at times have difficulty meeting their food needs and can’t always afford enough food to get them through the month, or the week. During economic downturns, these situations become more common and more serious.

Each year since 1995, USDA has monitored the level of food security — consistent access to adequate food for an active, healthy life. Since 2000, we’ve been authors of the annual report on food security published by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) with the collaboration of the Food and Nutrition Service. Today we released our report covering 2008. It was a year of economic downturn, and we saw the number of U.S. households classified as food insecure reach the highest level recorded since 1995.

In 2008 the number of food-insecure households grew to 17.1 million, or 14.6 percent of all households, up from 11.1 percent the previous year. Among households with children, the percentage increase was larger – from 15.8 percent in 2007 to 21 percent in 2008.

Our numbers include a subset of households that experienced more frequent and severe food insecurity, which we call very low food security. In these households, the food intake of some household members was actually reduced, and normal eating patterns are disrupted. In 2008, these households amounted to 5.7 percent of U.S. households, up from 4.1 percent in 2007.

We’re also seeing the recession reflected in the 2008 expenditures on USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program); at $37.7 billion, expenditures were up 13 percent from the previous year. And we’ve found that for SNAP participants, the prevalence of very low food security rose less in 2008 than among non-participants – suggesting that the food assistance programs provide a buffer against the more severe instances of food insecurity, although they can’t entirely prevent these conditions.

We view the information in the food security report as part of an overall effort to provide access to adequate, healthful food for those who need it. USDA’s food and nutrition assistance programs – programs like SNAP, and the National School Lunch Program – provide the core of the Nation’s nutritional safety net. It’s important for the people who operate these programs – and for our representatives in Congress – to have reliable data on the level of food security and the use of food and nutrition assistance programs both public and private. The information in the yearly food security reports is also used by community food providers and by private organizations that are working to alleviate food insecurity.

The ERS website contains the latest food security report, including a summary. And the December issue of ERS’s Amber Waves magazine contains an article on food security in recessionary times.

Margaret Andrews, Economist, and Mark Nord, Sociologist, USDA Economic Research Service

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