Today, USDA’s Economic Research Service released the report “Household Food Security in the United States 2009,” and reported that 17.4 million households had difficulty providing enough food due to a lack of resources, about the same as in 2008. In more than a third of those households, at least one member did not get enough to eat at some time during the year and normal eating patterns were disrupted due to limited resources.
For me, as Under Secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, this annual picture of life in America is particularly poignant and serves as a reminder of the vital role USDA nutrition assistance programs play in these difficult economic times.
This report highlights just how critical federal nutrition assistance programs are for American families in need. These programs are designed to respond rapidly and automatically to emerging needs in times of economic change and will expand and contract with the economy. We anticipate that food security will improve as the economy improves but in the near-term, without these benefits, many families would face far more severe problems getting the nutritious food they need.
USDA’s 15 nutrition assistance programs touch those in need in communities across the country. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp Program) participation continues to break records, with more than 42 million people – more than one in eight Americans – now receiving benefits. USDA’s school meal programs are also an important source of nutrition for children from low-income households, particularly when you stop to consider that many kids eat may eat as many as two meals a day at school. The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are there, providing the healthy meals that give children the nutrition they need to learn and grow and thrive, regardless of their ability to pay. And the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – usually just known as WIC – serves more than 9 million participants each month.
Millions of hungry Americans, men and women, young and old, depend on the help these programs provide. And as troubling as this new report is, we know that without the programs, the situation could be far worse. Benefits flow to families and communities where the economy slows and more people apply. Between 2008 and 2009, we saw dramatic program growth:
- Average monthly SNAP participation increased by about 5.3 million people (an 18.7 percent increase);
- One million more low-income children received free or reduced price lunches on an average school day (a 5.4 percent increase); and
- Over 400 thousand more low-income women, infants, and children participated in WIC in an average month (a 4.8 percent increase).
- Food donations through The Emergency Food Assistance Program increased by $100 million as a result of the Recovery Act, providing additional USDA Foods to thousands of food pantries and other emergency feeding organizations across the country,
In fact, 57 percent of food-insecure households in the survey reported that they had participated in one or more of the three largest federal nutrition assistance programs within the past month. The fact that food insecurity did not become more prevalent, despite a full percentage point increase in the poverty rate between 2008 and 2009, is a testament to the importance of these programs.
America has a big heart, but we’ve got to do more. The Obama administration is committed to providing greater access to USDA nutrition assistance programs and ensuring that healthy nutrition is available – particularly for our nation’s children. That’s why it’s so important for Congress to enact strong legislation reauthorizing the National School Lunch, School Breakfast and other child nutrition programs. These programs provide vital nutrition assistance to America’s school-aged children and deserve our full support. Given the stark reality of food insecurity in America we can do no less.