Podcast: Understanding Food Insecurity in the U.S.

November 23, 2010

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In this podcast, we’ll discuss the findings of the US Department of Agriculture’s report on food insecurity that was released last week. I’m Michelle Bazie and I’m joined by Dottie Rosenbaum, Senior Policy Analyst with the Center.

1. Dottie, what does the new USDA report show about food insecurity in the country?

Well let’s start by defining food insecurity. Food insecurity is what happens when families lack the resources they need to get enough nutritious food to thrive. This year, the Department of Agriculture found that the share of U.S. households that lacked access to adequate food at some point in 2009 remained at the highest levels since they began collecting these data in the mid-1990s. At the same time, the share of households that were food insecure was roughly unchanged from 2008 to 2009, even though the economy was worsening, with the unemployment rate rising from 5.8 percent to 9.3 percent, and the poverty rate rising from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent.

2. How many households does that amount to?

That means that about one out of every seven households lacked access to adequate food at some point in 2009 because they didn’t have enough money for groceries. That’s about 17 million households containing more than 50 million people. About 7 million of those households reported having to skip meals or take other steps to reduce their food intake because of the lack of resources.

3. You mentioned that food insecurity remained unchanged from 2008-2009. What was the level before 2008 – when the recession really began to take hold?

In 2008, as the recession began, the food insecurity rate jumped from 11 percent to almost 15 percent – again the highest level since USDA began collecting these data in the mid-1990s.

4. What contributed to keeping food insecurity in check, despite rising unemployment and poverty?

A slight fall in food prices in 2009 had something to do with it. Also important to understand were the effectiveness of the federal nutrition safety net — and the investments that were made through the 2009 Recovery Act in responding to increased need. In particular, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, what used to be known as Food Stamps) stepped in to help more families afford adequate food during hard times, as it’s designed to do.

5. How did SNAP have such a big impact?

In two major ways:

  • First: The number of households receiving SNAP benefits increased by 25 percent over the course of 2009. You see, SNAP enrollment expands automatically when the economy weakens and contracts in a strong economy. Because SNAP is available to almost any family whose net income is at or below the poverty line – which is about $22,000 for a family of four – it’s very responsive in supporting families and communities hit hard by economic downturns.
  • Second: The Recovery Act increased the maximum SNAP benefit by 13.6 percent beginning in April of 2009, providing an additional $20 - $24 per person per month to help families buy groceries. In total, the Recovery Act increased SNAP benefits by about $7 billion in 2009.

6. Dottie, what’s the bottom line here?

The troubling reality is that many Americans -- one in every seven households -- had difficulty affording food last year. The good news is that food insecurity would have been even worse if it weren’t for the SNAP program.

Thanks for joining me, Dottie.

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