Last year, 17.5 million American families, or over 14 percent of all households, experienced food insecurity at some point during the year, meaning they weren’t able to afford adequate food, according to the latest report from the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
More than 49 million people lived in those households, including 15.8 million children. While a majority of households that experienced food insecurity were able to keep eating by relying on very basic foods, 6.8 million households had at least one family member who had to eat less because they couldn’t afford food, or in other words had very low food security. About 765,000 children lived in those low security households.
Food insecurity doesn’t necessarily last continuously throughout the year; usually it is periodic but not chronic. Yet for three-quarters of food insecure households, it was a recurring event, happening in three or more months of the year. Food insecure families and those with very low food security experienced those conditions on average in seven months of the year. And for a quarter of food insecure households, it was a frequent or chronic situation, happening almost every month.
While parents often reduce their own diets to shield their children, about half of food insecure families who had children, or 3.8 million households, weren’t able to protect the kids. In 360,000 households, children experienced such severe insecurity that they were hungry, skipped a meal, or didn’t eat for an entire day.
Things are even harder for particular groups. Families with children are more likely to experience food insecurity, and more than a third of families headed by a single woman go through these episodes. About a quarter of both black and Hispanic families also went through food insecurity last year.
The rate of food insecurity among Americans hasn’t changed much since 2012, although it did decline slightly compared to 2011. But it’s still elevated as compared to before the recession: just 11 percent of families experienced food insecurity between 2005 and 2007. Very low food security has followed a similar pattern.
Even with the federal programs that can help alleviate these conditions, more than 60 percent of households that struggled to afford food last year also received assistance from one or more of the three largest ones. About 46 percent of food insecure families got food stamps, 33 percent of children got free or reduced-price school lunch, and 11 percent of women and children got WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).
Food stamps, or benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), certainly do help many families. They reach about 80 percent of eligible families and kept 5 million people out of poverty last year. But recent cuts mean that the program is doing less. An automatic cut went into effect in November last year that reduced benefits by an average of 7 percent, or $1.40 per person per meal. Then in December, Congress passed a complicated cut for 1.7 million people, although many states have taken action to shield them from the cut.
And while some families avail themselves of food banks and other charities, those resources are strained. About a third say they don’t have enough food to meet demand. In New York, for example, after the food stamp cut went into effect in November, nearly half of food pantries ran out of food and a quarter had to turn people away. About one in six charities nationwide is worried that it’ll have to close its doors. That will mean even less help for American families struggling to afford the basic necessity of eating an adequate meal.