Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a report on food (in)security in the U.S. It tells us some important things. But it’s limited. The data are quite old by the time the report is issued. And the number of households surveyed is too small to permit much by way of reliable geographic breakouts.
Now the Food Research and Action Center has issued a first-ever detailed, up-to-date report on food hardship “in every corner of the U.S.” Food hardship here is roughly equivalent to USDA’s food insecurity–specifically, an affirmative response to the question, “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”
The FRAC data come from a survey Gallop has been conducting every day since the beginning of January 2008. They’re current as of December 2009. And they reflect responses by more than 530,000 people (12 times as many as in the survey used for USDA’s latest report).
With such a large data set, FRAC has been able to provide reasonably reliable food hardship rates by calendar quarter, state, major metropolitan statistical area and Congressional district. As a political matter, the last may be most important because it puts the problem of hunger into the home base of virtually every member of Congress.
Here are some big-picture findings:
- Food hardship rose in 2008–from 16.3% in the first quarter to 19.5% in the fourth quarter.* Of course, the big uptick here is linked to the rising unemployment rate. But the large increase in “food at home” prices was also a factor.
- The food hardship rate declined somewhat in 2009, ending in the fourth quarter at 18.5%. FRAC attributes this in part to a drop in “food at home” prices, but mostly to other factors that offset the still-rising unemployment rate–increases in food stamp benefits, other provisions in the economic recovery act, policy changes that broadened food stamp eligibility and increased participation in all the major federal nutrition programs. In short, mostly the workings of the safety net.
- Food hardship was a greater problem for households with children than for those without. In 2009, 24.1% of the former experienced food hardship, as compared to 14.9% of the latter.
- Food hardship was a problem in every state. In 2009, the rate was over 10% in every state, over 15% in 43 states and over 20% in 17 states. For households with children, the 2008-9 rate was over 15% in every state and over 20% in 40 states.
- Food hardship was also a problem in almost every Congressional district. The 2008-9 food hardship rate was under 10% in only 23 of the country’s 436 Congressional districts and at least 15% in 311 districts.
And what about the District of Columbia?
- In 2009, the District’s overall food hardship rate was 20.8%–higher than in all but 14 states.
- Both the District’s food hardship rate and its relative ranking worsened last year. In 2008, the overall rate was 17.6%–lower than all but 20 states.
- The District had a higher rate of food hardship among families with children than any state–a shocking 40.8%. The highest ranking state was Mississippi, with 33.8%.
I don’t know what to say about figures like these that hasn’t been said before and better. So I’ll borrow from Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), co-chair of the Congressional Hunger Caucus. “Hunger is a political condition.”
We have the wealth to eliminate hunger. We’ve got a host of studies, pilot projects, best practices and proposals that tell us how to go about it. We know (or ought to know) that investments in reducing hunger more than pay for themselves–in lower health care, education and welfare costs and ultimately in greater economic productivity.
But do we have the political will to deal with food hardship now?
President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposed $10 billion over 10 years to strengthen the Child Nutrition Act–a down payment on his commitment to ending child hunger by 2015. But we haven’t heard much about this lately–or any hint that the food stamp increase in the economic recovery act should be extended.
The jobs creation bill the House passed will leave what the New York Times calls “a crater in the economy where the job market used to be.” And the Senate is taking its own sweet time with something even smaller.
Here in the District, we see budget cuts that have undermined the delivery of food stamps and other benefits–and possibly more cuts on the horizon. Still no word about when the Income Maintenance Administration will make the Food Stamp Expansion Act a reality.
So I’m not hopeful. But I hope to be proved wrong.
* Both these figures are higher than what USDA reported for food insecure households (14.6%).