Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the food insecurity rate last year was so little different from the 2013 rate as to be statistically the same — 14%.
That’s about 17.4 million households or a total of 48.1 million people without “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”
There was also no measurable change in what USDA calls the “very low food security rate,” i.e., the percent of households where at least one member sometimes didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of resources, including SNAP (food stamp) benefits.
More than 6.9 million households — 5.6% of all in the U.S. — fell into this category. And in 422,000 of them, children were sometimes hungry, had to skip meals or even went a whole day without anything to eat. No statistically significant change in this rate either.
These figures almost surely understate the actual extent of malnutrition and hunger in this country because the survey they’re based on doesn’t include homeless individuals or families. They’re nonetheless troubling. And the news doesn’t get more cheering as we drill down.
Food Insecurity Over the Longer Term
The nationwide food insecurity rate peaked in 2011, when it was 14.9%. The latest rate is lower than that, by a meaningful amount. But the very low food security rate isn’t.
Looking back over a longer time period, the food insecurity rate in 1999 was 10.1%. It rose every year, but one thereafter until 2012. At the same time, the very low food security rate inched up, though not yearly until 2009.
We see a slight drop then, but a return to the prior rate — 5.7% — the following year. And, as the foregoing indicates, that’s basically where it’s stuck.
Food Costs and SNAP
The typical U.S. household spent $50 a week per person for food last year. This is 17% more than the costs of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.
But the percent is considerably higher for households with incomes of at least 185% of the federal poverty line, the income eligibility cut-off for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and for reduced-price school meals.
These households spent $52.50 a week per person or 30% more than what the Thrifty Food Plan would allot them. As in the past, these figures are among the many that tells us SNAP benefits are too low.
The more telling, however, are the food insecurity rates among households that received these benefits for the entire 12 months the survey covered.
More than half the households — 51.9% — were food insecure. And well over half of these — 25.5% — had very low food security. Both these rates are somewhat higher than in 2012, the last full year before the premature expiration of the SNAP benefits boost the Recovery Act provided.
Food Insecurity in the District of Columbia
USDA reports three-year averages for states and the District to compensate for the relatively small number of households surveyed each year.
During 2012-14, 13.2% of D.C. households — roughly 41,315 — were food insecure. Of these, 4.9% — about 15,335 — couldn’t always afford to buy enough food of any sort for everyone to have enough to eat.
Both these rates are essentially the same as the national rates for the same time period. And both are essentially the same as the District’s rates during 2009-11. They’re considerably higher, however, than the rates during 2002-4, when they were 10.2% and 2.9%.
The just-released results of the American Community Survey don’t yet include current three-year averages for SNAP. We do, however, learn that 14.4% of District households received SNAP benefits last year. This is somewhat higher than the nationwide rate. But it apparently doesn’t translate into less food insecurity.
Don’t know what to make of all of this beyond the obvious. While SNAP benefits are too low everywhere, they’re especially insufficient in high-cost cities like the District, as research I’ve previous cited shows.
SNAP households are expected to spend 30% of their own money on food. Even that much probably wouldn’t make up for the shortfall between SNAP benefits and the costs of even the unrealistic Thrifty Food Plan.
In any case, a family doesn’t live by food alone. High housing costs and extraordinarily high childcare costs dwarf the estimated amount a family would need for food in the District.
So one has to assume that at least some families spend less on food than what’s supposed to be their share because that’s the only way they can pay the rent — and the only way they can work if they’ve got children who can’t be left to fend for themselves or with a friend of family member.
We’ve got a broad network of nonprofits that provide free food and/or meals to low-income District residents. But as Bread for the World’s president has said, “We can’t ‘food bank’ our way out of hunger.”
The new USDA figures confirm this not only for the District, but elsewhere. Yet we’re a long way from long-advocated increases in SNAP benefits — and a long way as well, it seems, from federal appropriations that would increase the reach of other anti-hunger programs.
In fact, we’ll be lucky if the news from Capitol Hill is no news.