Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hunger By The Numbers: USDA Releases 2010 Household Food Security Report

1 in 6 Americans struggled to put food on the table in 2010; USDA credits nutrition assistance programs for dropping number of households with"very low food insecurity..."
The number of Americans battling to afford to feed their families remained at a record high level in 2010, though the Obama Administration says it provided a critical safety net for millions, thanks to the US Department of Agriculture's fifteen food and nutrition assistance programs.

One in six citizens had difficulty purchasing enough healthy food to maintain an active lifestyle in 2010, according to the newest edition of USDA's annual report
from the Economic Research Service, Household Food Security in the United States. That's 17.2 million households, or 48.8 million people.

"This report underscores what we know, that household food security remains a challenge," Kevin Concannon, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Under Secretary told reporters during a morning conference call.

The unveiling of the 2010 Report, issued each year since 1995, is timed to coincide with today's full Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the fiscal year 2012 budget for USDA.  In fiscal year 2010, USDA spent $94.8 billion for food and nutrition assistance programs, a 19.7% increase from FY2009's $79.2 billion. Against the backdrop of a raging budget deficit battle, with lawmakers intent on slashing programs, USDA must defend itself.

The Department's nutrition assistance expenditures are crucial, Concannon said, because the 2010 food security numbers are "essentially unchanged" from the report issued in 2009, which showed a record number of Americans struggling to feed their families.

But Concannon noted one difference: The new Report finds that "very low food security" declined from 5.7% of households in 2009 to 5.4% in 2010, and cited this as a "statistically significant" drop. 6.4 million people had "very low food security" in 2010, compared with 6.8 million in 2009. Concannon credited USDA's nutrition assistance programs for the reduction, because 59% of all food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest USDA nutrition assistance programs in 2010. About 48% of these were children, Concannon said, and it's a reduction of about 386,000 households.

"What is really important to learn is that these numbers did not increase in this past year despite persistent poverty and unemployment right across the country,” Concannon said. "To me it is an indication of the impact of the fifteen nutrition programs."

Close to a quarter of those reporting "very low food security"--meaning that a household had run out of food, skipped meals or otherwise cut back on eating on one or more occasions--said it had been a standard fact of life for three or more months in 2010. The numbers are self reported during phone interviews that ask participants a series of questions, and do not include hunger statistics for the homeless.

USDA's expanding assistance foodscape...
All of USDA food assistance programs expanded to varying degrees in FY 2010. The three largest programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps), which in fiscal year 2010 grew each month, going from 37.6 million people to more than 42.9 million; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which had an average monthly enrollment of 9.2 million; and the National School Lunch Program, which served a monthly average of 31.6 million children each school day. These, combined with the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the School Breakfast Program accounted for 96% of USDA’s $94.8 billion expenditure in FY2010.

In July, the US House of Representatives had two days of debate over slashing USDA's FY2012 budget, and funds were cut in the measure that ultimately passed by a narrow margin, 217-203 in the final vote.

"The message we have tried to convey clearly to Congress is that we are operating as good stewards of taxpayers dollars," Concannon said. "These programs which have been historically supported on a bipartisan basis are operating as they should."

Concannon noted that the nutrition assistance programs are crucial for America's future, because they help citizens through difficult economic times, and make it possible for children to focus in school. He praised the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act 2010, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, and noted that it is making nutritious foods available to millions of children.

"These are very important targeted investments that the American people are making not only in our targeted population, but in reducing our health care expenditures," Concannon said. He hailed the WIC program as the ultimate form of "early intervention."

Economic stimulus...
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in August cited the Food Stamp programs as an economic stimulus, noting that "every dollar of SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in the economy in terms of economic activity." Concannon pointed out the economic benefits of USDA's nutrition assistance programs, too, and said these are a boon for those who make a profit in the US foodscape.

"It certainly helps supermarkets, it certainly helps people in the food chain who are transporting and growing," Concannon said. "There are studies that point to that."

Restaurant corporations are now competing for a bigger piece of the USDA nutrition assistance pie, according to a story in USAToday on Wednesday. Four states allow Food Stamps to be used in restaurants, and Yum! brands, among other corporations, is aggressively lobbying USDA to expand the practice. Yum! owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Long John Silver's.

Downloads: Household Food Security in the United States 2010 [PDF]. There's also a Summary of the Report [PDf].

The Report by the numbers...
The lead author of the report, USDA economist Alisha Coleman-Jensen, said the questions had been endorsed by the Committee on National Statistics, a panel of the nation’s top statisticians.

“Overall the measure is valid and reliable,” Coleman-Jensen said. “And it has been used for several years.”

The Report compiles statistics on food security among American households gleaned from a survey conducted in December of 2010, with food security defined as "consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living." There are three categories of food insecurity "Food insecure," "low food security," and "very low food security."

The Report finds that food insecurity rates were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the current federal poverty line ($22,350 for a family of four), households with children headed by single women or single men, and black and Hispanic households. Food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas than in suburban areas and other outlying areas around large cities.

The categories in the Report are "food secure," "food insecure," "low food security," and "very low food security." 85.5% of U.S. households were "food secure" throughout 2010. That's 101.5 million people, a number USDA is calling "essentially unchanged" from 2009, when 85.3% of households were food secure.

The Big Number: "Food Insecure"
The Report finds that 14.5% of households were "food insecure" at some time during 2010, compared to 14.7% in 2009. This is defined as "at times during the year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food." The number includes households "with low food security" and "very low food security," part of the statistical practice of running the categories together.

As noted above, in 2010, 48.8 million people lived in food-insecure households. This breaks down to 11.3 million adults in households with very low food security, and 16.2 million children living in food-insecure households in which children, along with adults, were food insecure.

In 2010, children were "food insecure" at times during the year in 9.8% of households with children (3.9 million households), down from 10.6% in 2009. These households were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious meals for their children. Read Food Insecurity in Households with Children: Prevalence, Severity, and Characteristics.

Low food security
9.1% of households, or 10.9 million citizens were found to have "low food security"--also "essentially unchanged" from the 2009 numbers of 9.0% in 2009. This is defined as "households obtained enough food to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake by using a variety of coping strategies, such as eating less varied diets, participating in Federal food assistance programs, or getting emergency food from community food pantries."

Very low food security
As noted above, USDA is citing the numbers for "very low food security" as having dropped between 2009 and 2010, and calls the .3 percentage point difference "a statistically significant decline." 5.4% or 6.4 million people had "very low food security" at some time during 2010, compared to 5.7% percent in 2009. "The defining characteristic of very low food security is that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food. Very low food security can be characterized in terms of the conditions that households in this category typically report in the annual food security survey," notes USDA.

The report also contains statistics on how much US households spent for food in 2010, as well as the extent to which food-insecure households participated in federal and community food assistance programs, such as Food Stamps and the WIC program. Enrollment in the Food Stamps program increased during each month of 2010.

A post about USDA's 2009 report is here. It showed that about 17.4 million households in America had difficulty providing enough nutritious food due to a lack of resources. The numbers were almost identical to the report released for 2008.

(Above: A state level map, showing average prevalence of food insecurity across the US, 2008-2010)

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