Land of Plenty? 6.8M American Households Struggling to Put Food on the Table

New federal data shows children and single parents are especially at risk.

USDA data shows that food assistance is alive and well. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Last week, a new Gallup poll delivered the unsavory news that nearly 20 percent of Americans are food insecure, meaning that because of a lack of money or resources they don't have consistent and reliable access to food. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) polished off its own 2011 data and dug much, much deeper into the issue to learn exactly who hunger is affecting and how. Here are some of the details.

Most households are secure, but those that aren't really struggle.

Approximately 85.1 percent of U.S. households had enough food throughout the year to live healthy lifestyles. That would be great news, except that those that are food insecure fare pretty badly. Five point seven percent of U.S. households had very low food security—higher than last year's data—amounting to 6.8 million households that really struggled to put food on the table. The 5.7 percent with very low food security make up one-third of all food-insecure homes.

Children, single parents and minorities bear the brunt of food insecurity.

The following groups all had rates of food insecurity higher than the national average:

  • Households with children (20.6 percent)
  • Households with children under age 6 (21.9 percent)
  • Households with children headed by a single woman (36.8 percent) or a single man (24.9 percent)
  • Black, non-Hispanic households (25.1 percent) and Hispanic households (26.2 percent)
  • Low-income households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (34.5 percent)

Among households with incomes close to or below the national poverty line ($22,811 for a family of four), homes with children headed by single women or single men, as well as Black and Hispanic households, suffered "substantially higher" rates of food insecurity than the national average.

Food assistance is vital.

Fifty-seven percent of all food-insecure households took part in at least one of the major federal food and nutrition assistance programs in the month prior to the collection of survey data. These programs are food stamps or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women and Children (WIC).

SNAP provided benefits to 44.7 million people in need, and the NSLP dished up lunch to 31.8 million children each school day in the 2011 fiscal year. WIC served an average of 9 million participants each month.

But the sobering truth is that these programs haven't eliminated the problem of hunger. Though we like to call ourselves the wealthiest country in the world, we still haven't figured out how to feed our citizens.

Has the recession had an impact on your food budget? Share with us in the comments section below.

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