When It Comes to Hunger, We Still Haven’t Recovered From the Great Recession

Food security improved dramatically in 2015, but we’re still worse off than before the housing bubble popped.
Children eat breakfast at the federally funded Head Start program school in Woodbourne, New York, in September 2012. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Sep 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For the first time in seven years, the number of Americans suffering from hunger or some degree of food insecurity dropped significantly in 2015, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As is so often the case with news surrounding the nation’s puttering recovery, though, the otherwise happy news comes with more than a few caveats.

The rate of U.S. households experiencing either low or very low food security last year declined to 12.7 percent, which is more than a 2 percent drop compared with 2014 and the biggest year-over-year drop since the Great Recession began. But the rate remains at a stubbornly high level compared with before the housing bubble popped.

In 2009, during the worst of the economic crisis, roughly 50 million Americans lived in households that struggled to get enough healthy food to eat. According to the new stats, which the USDA released this week, that number has dropped to 42 million Americans. So is the glass half empty or half full? True, 8 million fewer Americans are living in food-insecure households. But compared with 2007, eight million more Americans are living in food-insecure households—and 11 million more are when you compare the 2015 numbers with those from 1999. Single-parent households, households with children, and households headed by people of color all continue to experience food insecurity at a higher rate than the rest of the population.

Even while food insecurity in households with young kids remains comparatively high, the most progress has been made in combating hunger for that demographic. The new report shows that the number of households with children experiencing hunger—“very low food security”—dropped to a level that has not been seen since before the recession, and far fewer children themselves experienced hunger.

The mixed-bag results of the annual USDA food security survey had antihunger advocates offering mixed interpretations.

“These numbers are great,” Duke Storen of the No Kid Hungry campaign told NPR. “We’re seeing more children participating in the programs that are available to them, like school breakfast.” The USDA found that 59 percent of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the federal government’s three largest food and nutrition assistance programs, and the U.S. has also significantly expanded its programs for free or reduced-price school meals, including tripling the number of breakfasts served since 1990.

Yet when it comes to the overall picture of hunger in America, Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, took a dimmer view. “We know what it takes to end hunger in this country, so there can be no more excuses,” Weill said in a statement. “More must be done to raise the employment rates and wages, and to project and strengthen federal nutrition programs to ensure more low-income Americans get the nutrition they need for their health and well-being.”

Indeed, in a study released just last week, economist William M. Rodgers III at the Century Foundation found that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour could have a major impact on the problem of hunger in America, allowing some 1.2 million American households to become food secure.

As if to echo Rodgers’ findings, when you look at the state-by-state breakdown provided by the USDA, you find that of the 20 states with the lowest rates of food insecurity, 13 have a minimum wage higher than the federal one. As for the dozen states with the highest levels of food insecurity, eight force their low-wage workers to get by on the bare-bones federal minimum.