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Food Stamps And Nutrition Programs Likely Kept Millions From Going Hungry In 2010

Our guest blogger is Katie Wright, special assistant to the Half in Ten Campaign at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

With unemployment and poverty on the rise last year, it would seem intuitive that the number of families struggling to put food on the table would also increase. But a new report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service finds that the percentage of households struggling with hunger, known as food insecure households, remained at virtually the same level in 2010 as found in 2009. In fact, the report finds that the percentage of households living with very low food security actually decreased last year.

So what gives?

The news here is that the federal nutritional safety net programs played a key role in mitigating the hunger that would have otherwise resulted from increases in poverty and unemployment. In recent years, SNAP caseloads have expanded to accommodate the formerly middle-class families who find themselves on food stamps for the first time. While some conservatives point to the resulting increasing cost of the program as an indicator of program inefficiencies, SNAP is operating just as it should. The increasing cost of the SNAP program can be accounted for by the deep recession, an effective temporary increase in benefits made through the Recovery Act, and increasing food prices.

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As these new food insecurity numbers reveal, effective government nutrition assistance programs like SNAP play a major role in keeping families and children out of food insecurity during poor economic times. SNAP is one of 15 government nutrition assistance programs administered by the USDA that help families meet their nutrition needs and keep them above the poverty line. Historically bipartisan child nutrition programs such as free or reduced price school lunch and breakfast programs help kids get the nutrition they need to fuel their development and succeed in school. The Woman Infants and Children program, which supports nearly one out of every two live births in the U.S., provides expectant low-income mothers and young children with the preventive health care and nutrition they need.

Despite this good news, hunger and food insecurity is still a major problem in the United States. The USDA report finds that the percentage of households experiencing food insecurity (defined as the inability to consistently access adequate food for active, healthy living), rose sharply in 2008 with the recession and has remained at a record high level ever since.

In 2010, 14.5 percent of all households were food insecure. Despite these facts, SNAP and other food programs supporting low-income families are on Congress’ chopping block.

Without SNAP, the 45.1 million people who received benefits as recently as June 2011, would face impossible choices like whether to feed themselves and their families or pay their bills. SNAP also helps families coping with the fallout from natural disasters and fuels local economies that benefit from increased spending at grocery stores and local markets. In fact, a 2010 analysis by the USDA finds that every $5 in new SNAP benefits can yield as much as $9 in economic activity.

Nutrition programs help low-income families, children, the elderly, and the disabled — the groups who most often bear the recession’s brunt. Lawmakers should recognize the important role these programs play in helping hungry families and supporting the fragile economic recovery and move to protect these programs in their deliberations.