Report: More Americans Face Hunger

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/120510415/120510820" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

The government released figures Monday showing that a record number of Americans faced food insecurity in 2008. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said 49 million people lack the access to food that they need.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

The government says more Americans are experiencing what it calls food insecurity. That means they dont have enough food or they're making compromises when it comes to what they eat.

A Department of Agriculture report shows that in 2008, nearly one in seven households found itself in that situation, that works out to nearly 50 million people.

Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY: The USDA says this is the highest level of food insecurity since the agency began tracking statistics in 1995, and there's no question that the economy is to blame.

(Soundbite of distribution center)

BRADY: At a distribution center for the Southwestern Virginia Second Harvest Food Bank, this morning workers moved pallets around, as local food pantries dropped by to stock up.

Pam Irvine is the president and CEO. She says demand for emergency food assistance is up 20 to 30 percent over last year.

Ms. PAM IRVINE (President and CEO, Southwestern Virginia Second Harvest Food Bank): There's been some indication or talk about a recovery in the economy. However, we're not seeing that right now. It's going to be a while, I think, before families see that.

BRADY: The grocery chain Kroger just donated about 50 tons of food to Irvine's organization. Jim Cameron of Lake Christian Ministries is among those patiently waiting for his local food bank's allotment.

Mr. JIM CAMERON (Lake Christian Ministries): We are like everybody else. Our numbers are just escalating immensely. We used to figure 20 to 22 clients in a morning was busy. We did 47, I think it was, clients yesterday.

BRADY: At the Northern Arizona Food Bank in Flagstaff, a volunteer opens a paper bag, then clients like single mother Jennifer Dowguy(ph) walk into a noisy cooler to pick out the food they need.

Ms. JENNIFER DOWGUY: Well, right now Im short on money. Im unemployed, looking for work here. And we found out about this program through a friend, so thats the reason why we're here today.

BRADY: Executive Director Kerry Ketchum says this economic downturn is different than most.

Mr. KERRY KETCHUM (Executive Director, Northern Arizona Food Bank): We've seen peaks and valleys in the past for short periods of time. But this is - we're pushing 18 months now of continued increases on a monthly basis as compared to last year.

BRADY: Ketchum says groups like his also have been hit by declines in donations. At the Watts Labor Community Action Committee food pantry in Los Angeles, food is distributed twice a month.

Ms. DEBRA BARRETT(ph): When you can't feed your kids, then you know it's tight.

BRADY: Debra Barrett couldnt wait for the next distribution, so she showed up today.

Ms. BARRETT: I was working and now I've lost my job. You know, I have grandchildren and I have a daughter who's trying to work. And my unemployment is not setting in right now and I need to feed my kids.

BRADY: Organizers at the pantry say they never turn anyone away. In Washington, D.C., Jim Weill heads the Food Research and Action Center. He says the USDA report on food security also shows that while the economy was doing well earlier in the decade, poorer families didnt share in that. Then when the recession came

Mr. JIM WEILL (President, Food Research and Action Center): It just pushed 13 million families over the edge into food insecurity. So thats a measure both of how bad the recession is, but also a measure of how vulnerable their situation was before the recession started.

BRADY: Weill says he hopes lawmakers on Capitol Hill will consider this as they debate funding for things like school lunch and food stamp programs because, he says, these numbers are for 2008. And he predicts next year's report will be even worse.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Broader Strategy Urged To Combat Hunger In U.S.

A volunteer at D.C. Central Kitchen loads a van with groceries for distribution to hungry families. i

A volunteer at D.C. Central Kitchen helps load a van with groceries that will be given to hungry families in the Washington area. Community organizations have seen an increase in requests for food because of the poor economy. Pam Fessler/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Pam Fessler/NPR
A volunteer at D.C. Central Kitchen loads a van with groceries for distribution to hungry families.

A volunteer at D.C. Central Kitchen helps load a van with groceries that will be given to hungry families in the Washington area. Community organizations have seen an increase in requests for food because of the poor economy.

Pam Fessler/NPR

Just one day after a federal report revealed that 1 in 7 U.S. families struggled to get enough to eat last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged lawmakers to reauthorize school nutrition programs that help feed the nation's schoolchildren.

Appearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, Vilsack said the child nutrition programs provide an opportunity to fight child hunger. A USDA report released Monday said 49 million people experienced what the government calls "food insecurity" in 2008.

"Yesterday, the department released a report showing that in over 500,000 families with children in 2008, one or more children simply do not get enough to eat. They had to cut the size of their meals, skip meals or even go whole days without food at some time during the year," Vilsack said. "This is simply unacceptable in a nation as wealthy and developed as the United States."

In the 2010 budget, President Obama has proposed an additional $10 billion over 10 years for programs to provide meals and improve child nutrition.

The National School Lunch Program serves 31 million children in 100,000 participating schools across the country; the School Breakfast Program serves about 11 million children in 88,000 schools.

A D.C. Central Kitchen employee gives out food to people in need in Washington, D.C. i

A D.C. Central Kitchen employee gives out food to people in need in Washington. Aid organizations have seen a spike in the number of people who don't have enough food. Pam Fessler/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Pam Fessler/NPR
A D.C. Central Kitchen employee gives out food to people in need in Washington, D.C.

A D.C. Central Kitchen employee gives out food to people in need in Washington. Aid organizations have seen a spike in the number of people who don't have enough food.

Pam Fessler/NPR

"For many children in our programs, school lunch and breakfast represents the only healthy food that they eat all day," Vilsack said. He also encouraged lawmakers to expand the programs and work to ensure that children have food during "gap periods" when school isn't in session.

On Monday, Vilsack said a broader strategy is needed to eliminate hunger, and he lauded the Obama administration's efforts to address the reasons that many Americans don't have enough food.

"The fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States is poverty — marked by a lack of adequate resources to address basic needs, such as food, shelter and health care," he said in a statement on the USDA Web site. "The Obama administration has taken aggressive action on these fronts through the expansion of critical services for Americans most in need."

The USDA's annual report on food security painted a bleak picture of food availability. According to the report, 17 million U.S. households didn't always have access to food last year — up from 13 million households in 2007. The figure was the highest level since the USDA began tallying the figures in 1995.

Many of the families relied on federal food and nutrition assistance programs, community food pantries and soup kitchens, the report said. Family members often skipped meals, and many adults did without food to provide for children in the family.

As bad as the USDA report is, Shamia Holloway of the Capital Area Food Bank said it doesn't reflect what's going on in communities now.

"Those figures are for 2008, but we expect to see even more families in need, more people suffering" this year, Holloway said. Calls to the food bank's Hunger Lifeline, an emergency food referral program, have increased 91 percent this year, she said.

Holloway said the worsening situation is partly due to the poor economy and rising national unemployment — which hit 10.2 percent in October.

"The economy has exacerbated the situation of the working poor, and it's affecting middle-class people now" because of unemployment, said Holloway. "The economy has significantly weakened, so there are more families struggling to get access to enough food, and nutritious food."

The Washington, D.C.-based food bank gives groceries to 700 agencies, churches, food pantries and other community groups to distribute to those in need. But the increased demand means supplies are being quickly depleted, and food distribution agencies have less to give.

Holloway said area food distribution agencies have reported increased requests for aid, ranging from 30 percent to 100 percent. She added that more than 633,000 people are at risk of hunger in the Washington area.

Vilsack said the elderly are especially vulnerable.

"We see seniors who have to decide, 'Am I going to buy my medicine this month, or am I going to eat this month,' " Vilsack said.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.