Sept. 7, 2011 -- The number of Americans struggling to put adequate food on the table remains at an all-time high, a new government report shows.
The report, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), finds that 49 million Americans, or one in six, lacked the resources to eat sufficient, regular meals in 2010.
That number was essentially unchanged since its peak in 2009.
The report is based on an annual survey of 45,000 U.S. households conducted by the U.S. Census.
"This report underscores what we already know: household food insecurity remains a serious problem in the United States," said Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, in a news conference.
But Concannon also noted that it could have been worse.
The report found that the number of people living in the most difficult circumstances, those in households with very low food security, declined slightly from 5.7% to 5.4% of all households in the survey.
Concannon credits federal food assistance programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) with preventing a deeper slide into poverty and hunger. "These programs keep millions of Americans out of poverty."
Experts said that given high unemployment and the pinch of rising housing costs they were surprised the number had not climbed.
"The economy is really affecting the basic needs of households," says Barbara Laraia, PhD, associate professor in the Center for Health & Community at the University of California, San Francisco. "If people are struggling to get enough food, that means they're really constrained."
Food Insecurity and Health
Laraia says food insecurity isn't just a measure of how much people are eating. It's also a measure of diet quality and overall health.
People who are food insecure often forgo healthy foods like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean cuts of meat. That's because those foods are more expensive than processed and fast foods, which often contain high amounts of fat, sodium, and added sugar.
"Households that are both food insecure and poor have higher rates of obesity among kids and women, especially," Laraia says.
And studies have shown that people with diabetes who are also food insecure have higher levels of hemoglobin A1c, or poor long-term blood sugar control.
About 20% of households with children faced food insecurity last year, the report shows. In many of those families, adults sacrifice to make sure their kids are getting enough to eat, but sometimes even that isn't enough. In about 10% of households with children, the kids can't count on their next meal.
Food Insecurity Highest in the South
The report also found marked differences in food security between states.
Most of the states with households without adequate food were in the south. Those included Mississippi, where 19.4% of households are considered food insecure, Texas (18.8%), Arkansas (18.6%), Alabama (17.3%), and Georgia (16.9%).
At the other end of the spectrum, North Dakota had the lowest rates of food insecurity in the U.S., with just 7.1% of households falling into that category. It was followed by Delaware (9.7%), New Hampshire and Virginia (9.6%), Minnesota (10.3%), and Massachusetts (10.8%).
While big-picture solutions, like increased funding for federal food programs, will continue to be vital stopgap measures in the fight against hunger, experts said individuals could also do a lot to make a difference within their own communities.
"One of the most effective strategies, I think, is for each of us to ask our neighbor if they are hungry," says David H. Holben, PhD, professor of nutrition at Ohio University, in Athens, and an expert on food insecurity.
"Providing transportation to the grocery store, sharing some food with them, inviting them over to share a meal, teaching them gardening skills, and many other things can be done to help a neighbor in need."