Food insecurity

Report says 49 million people don't have enough to eat

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — One in seven American households experienced food insecurity in 2012, virtually unchanged from the year before, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report, published last week by the USDA's Economic Research Service, concludes that 17.6 million households, or roughly 49 million people, did not have the money or resources to afford a healthy diet. Of those, 7 million households experienced very low food security, meaning that meals were skipped or portions were reduced to try to make groceries last as long as possible.

Food insecurity, which had been hovering between 10 and 12 percent nationwide for most of the 2000s, jumped to 14.5 percent in 2008 as the effects of the Great Recession began to take hold. It has remained at or above that figure since, including in 2012, when it was 14.5 percent.

For states, food insecurity is averaged for three-year periods. In 2000-2002, Oregon's rate of low or very low food security was 13.7 percent, well above the national average of 10.8 percent. By 2007-2009, Oregon's 13.9 percent was more in line with the national figure of 13.5 percent.

For 2010-2012, Oregon had moved below the national average, 13.6 percent to 14.7 percent, respectively.

The figures show that improvement on hunger is lagging behind other aspects of the economic recovery, said Jeff Kleen, the Oregon Food Bank's public policy advocate.

“While the economy as a whole is improving, it may not be improving for all economic classes similarly,” he said. “Some groups may be making strides and getting back on their feet, but you've got a group at the bottom that is not making the same progress.”

Persistent hunger and food insecurity have driven more and more people to use food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Allowance Program, or SNAP.

Statewide, there were 810,535 people enrolled in the program in June, almost twice as many as there were in summer 2003, according to the state Department of Human Services. In Central Oregon, the average number of households receiving SNAP benefits has more than doubled since 2008, from 8,433 to 19,234 in 2012.

SNAP benefits have acted as a bulwark against hunger, but the program is stretched thin, said Kleen. The program was given additional funding as part of the stimulus package passed in 2009, but those provisions are set to expire at the end of October.

Consequently, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of four will go from $668 to $632, a reduction of $36. For a single individual, the maximum allowance drops $11, from $200 to $189.

That may not sound like much, but it can mean an extra bag of groceries for families trying to stretch their budget until the end of the month, Kleen said.

The cuts will come as winter weather approaches, when food pantries typically see the highest demand as families face higher heating bills and children miss several weeks of meals at school during holiday breaks, he said.

“That's a very challenging time for households,” he said. “This is just another hit that those struggling households are going to take.”

The end of the stimulus provision means that food stamps will cover 21 fewer meals a month for a family of four, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. Stimulus funding kept an additional 500,000 households nationwide from falling into the very low food security category, according to USDA research.

In addition, Congress is poised to make significant cuts to SNAP funding. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a version of the Farm Bill that cut food stamps by $4.5 billion over 10 years. The House of Representatives tried to pass its own Farm Bill that included $20 billion of cuts over 10 years. After that failed, the House removed SNAP from the Farm Bill, intending to revisit it later as separate legislation.

In the coming weeks, Republican House leadership is expected to unveil its new plan for SNAP, which would cut $40 billion over 10 years, said Stacy Dean, vice president of Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“We're deeply concerned that policymakers are seriously considering cutting food assistance to needy Americans,” she said. “It's sort of packaged around this premise that if you remove food, then people will go to work. Removing food from low income households is not a job creator.”

If the GOP plan is enacted, it will force four to six million people off food stamps, according to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculations. This would increase the prevalence of food insecurity, Dean said.

“I think we're at a moment when Congress should be taking steps to reduce food insecurity, not steps that will increase it,” she said. “I think we all want to see families succeed and do better, but depriving them of food is not a path to success.”