Household Food Insecurity Growing in the U.S.

The USDA recently released its annual report for 2008 on food insecurity in the United States. As expected in this time of recession, food insecurity significantly increased, rising from 11.1% (13 million households) in 2007 to 14.6% (17 million households) in 2008, the highest levels since the study began in 1995. Food insecure households are defined as those who, at some time during the year, had difficulty providing sufficient food for all household members due to lack of resources. One-third of these households experienced very low food security, an episode in which food intake of some household members was reduced or eating patterns were disrupted.

Access to adequate nutrition affects many aspects of a child’s life, especially their learning and future health. As the nation focuses on the rising cost of health care, it is important to recognize that a large portion of every health care dollar is spent on preventable diseases, many of which are closely linked to nutrition. President Obama pointed out the importance of this issue to our nation’s strength: “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.”

 

Fortunately, several programs exist to fight hunger in the United States. They range from the National School Lunch Program to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). By expanding these programs, increasing access to them, and reducing associated administrative burdens, we can make use of this existing framework and truly fight hunger. 

 

SNAP is a massive program that reaches all ages and many working families (eligibility extends up to 130% of the Federal Poverty Level, or just under $24,000 per year for a family of 3). Utilization of this program is skyrocketing across the country, having increased by more than 37% in the past two years. In fact, a new study predicts that nearly half of all children in the country (and a shocking 90% of African American children) will receive SNAP benefits at some point during their childhood.

While the federal government fully funds the benefits in programs like SNAP, states are largely responsible for the administration. And, in light of state budget crises, the front-line workers administering these programs are not getting the support they need to deal with increasing demand. This leaves needy families without benefits, and leaves millions of dollars in Washington that could be funneled into local economies. 

 

President Obama has declared a goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. While it is understandable that the prevalence of food insecurity rises during a severe recession, the trend does not need to continue. We must commit to ensuring that everyone in this wealthy nation can meet their most basic needs and access an adequate diet. Improving access to our existing food and nutrition programs in a vital first step, and can go a long way toward achieving the President’s goal.

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