NPR logo

USDA Study Show Hunger On The Rise In U.S.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
USDA Study Show Hunger On The Rise In U.S.

Around the Nation

USDA Study Show Hunger On The Rise In U.S.

USDA Study Show Hunger On The Rise In U.S.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A new report on hunger in America from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly 15 percent of all American households struggled to get enough to eat in 2008. That's the largest percentage since the agency began measuring hunger in 1995. Alfred Lubrano, reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer explains the study's findings.


We got another look at the true impact of the recession, this week, with a new report on hunger in America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that almost 15 percent of all American household struggled to get enough to eat in 2008. That's the highest number since the agency began measuring hunger in 1995. Even families with at least one adult working have been affected.

And if you work in a food pantry or a soup kitchen, what are you seeing in your community? Give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining me now is Alfred Lubrano. He's a poverty reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of "Limbo: Blue Collar White Collar Dreams." He joins us from his office.

Thanks so much for being here.

Mr. ALFRED LUBRANO (Reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer): Thank you.

ROBERTS: What stood out to you on this report?

Mr. LUBRANO: The thing that struck me was the numbers on the working poor. That is - I mean, these are people with jobs suffering problems with hunger. The number of people who are working, have 1.3 to double the poverty level - that is to say that for a family of four, the poverty level is $22,000. If you make 130 percent of that, you make $29,000 a year. Similarly, people who make 200 percent of the poverty level have 44,000. So that means that people who make between 29 and 44,000 were still reporting being food insecure, that is having problems getting to healthy food.

ROBERTS: So, given the recession, is this sort of a, you know, bad-economic-times-hit-poor-people-harder story or is there something more at work?

Mr. LUBRANO: There's something beyond here. I mean, obviously, the poor are getting hit hard. But the recession is the story of the working poor and the working poor are themselves getting hurt. As one expert put it to me, the poor have been suffering, despite growth in the economy in the early part of the century, the poor did not get that trickle down effect. And so, they've been getting hurt. And this last thing shows that the poor have been basically pushed off the cliff and the working poor are now finding themselves in very dire straits.

ROBERTS: The study itself measured both low food security and very low food security. Help us understand what that means.

Mr. LUBRANO: Yeah. The USDA had to struggle for a while with coming up with terminology other than just saying people are hungry. They wanted to get a better view of that. When we speak about hunger in this country, a lot of us are thinking about Sudan, a lot of us are thinking about those old images from Biafra many years ago with children with bloated bellies. And so folks would walk around the country and say, well, you know, there aren't people with bloated bellies in this country, therefore, there aren't hungry people. And that's clearly a misperception.

So, what the government set out to do is try and get some terminology settled down into some sort of order. So, low food security is basically not having enough food for an active and healthy lifestyle. Very low food security is not having enough to eat, having disrupted patterns of food intake and sometimes going hungry for days.

ROBERTS: Another statistic that stood out is how much this disproportionately affects children, who, of course, can't necessarily get their own food. So it's not that much of a surprise. But given the formative need for nutrition in early childhood, it's particularly damaging.

Mr. LUBRANO: Yes. Of the 49 million people last year unable to consistently get enough food to eat, according to the report, 17 million of them were children. There was a particularly telling aspect of this pointed out by some of the researchers here in Philadelphia, particularly Mariana Chilton at Drexel University, is showing that at 6 years old and younger the number of children experiencing very low food security - that is - that disruptive patterns of food intake and sometimes going hungry - that number tripled since 2006. So you're talking about half a million children who are in a very, very dangerous place in terms of hunger.

And the way this translates into greater problems for society as a whole is -are the health impacts of hunger which have everything to do with failure in education. For example, hungry children are sick more often so they don't attend school. They become - they have discipline problems. They have academic problems. They have an overall inability to learn - and we all know from listening to political leaders what the consequences of having an uneducated workforce. And this report seems to show that the - our next generation is headed into that very, very bad place because of the lack of nutrition.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Russell(ph) in Linville, North Carolina. Russell, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RUSSELL (Caller): Thank you. I just wanted to make a comment about an observation. I work on an inpatient psychiatric unit and we frequently and more so, day to day, are seeing people in a situation where they have to choose between food and medication. And the choice is pretty much always food, of course, and this is resulting in a lot of admissions due to lack of medication compliance. And secondly, we discharge many, many people who - we can discharge them somewhere, but we have so few resources to help them meet that food need that it's a very big problem.

ROBERTS: Russell, thanks for your call. Alfred Lubrano, Russell brings up this idea of sort of collateral damage around hunger issues that goes beyond the actual lack of food.

Mr. LUBRANO: Yeah. I mean, for a lot of experts, hunger is an indication that the family's overall budget is inadequate, which is in turn forcing tradeoffs between food and other basic needs. That's why when people who look at hunger, they're also looking at housing, health, living wage, things like that that have nothing to do directly with food but are all, as researchers are finding, all of a piece in a home that's in this kind of crisis.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Heather(ph) in Denver. Heather, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

HEATHER (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.


HEATHER: I volunteered at a food pantry in - actually, in Douglas County, Colorado, which is a few years ago is considered one of the most affluent and growing areas. And we do see the need increasing. But I had a couple of questions on the data if it's self-reported or verified by anyone in the agency in terms of going into the homes and seeing food security? My second question is - and I'll take this off air - how does this tie in to the fact that every other night on the news I hear that 25 to 30 percent of Americans are obese and morbidly obese? And is it the same people who are becoming obese or the different - you know, how does that work? Thanks for your time.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Heather. Alfred Lubrano?

Mr. LUBRANO: Well, I guess, the second part first. This is something that we get, as reporters, all the time. We will show a picture of a person who we've profiled as being hungry or in some distress regarding food and the person will look heavy. And then we'll get these letters, well, how can they be hungry if they're fat? Well, in point of fact, most of the obese people in this country are poor, and there's been a lot of study about this. I mean, what it comes down to in many ways is the poor feeding themselves empty calories, you know, anything with high fructose corn syrup - and there's a lot of things with high fructose corn syrup that's cheap food that they just eat to feel filled.

Also, in Philadelphia, as in many cities, there are so-called supermarket deserts. These are areas of poor people where you go long, long stretches before you can actually find a supermarket. So people are forced to eat in these small stores, sometimes bodegas they're called, little places where there are precious few fruits and vegetables. And a lot of that - you know, a lot of chips and a lot of soda. And people simply don't have the access to it. And on top of that, a calorie of tomato or a calorie of apple costs more than, you know, a calorie of Twinkies or Ho Hos, or whatever. I mean, good food costs more money. Good food is less plentiful in poor neighborhoods, and that's a problem.

The other thing that happens - and I've talked to people with experience like this - a lot of poor people are on food stamps. Food stamps don't quite do the job, and generally a family will report that they run out of food stamps by the third week of the month. Food stamps are issued monthly. So there's a - yet another week of food - of eating, rather, to go, and how do they fill that gap? Well, many parents report that they will go without eating for that last week of the month so that their children can eat something. I mean, the kids are not eating great, but they're maybe eating, like, cereal three times a day or something like that but at least they're getting some kind of food.

When the women finally get their food stamps at the beginning of the month, they report that they will gorge on food for a little while, and as you know, a fasting-gorging pattern helps bring about obesity. Plus, this one lady said to me, it's hard for me to jog around my neighborhood because they shoot you. And�

ROBERTS: And what about Heather's other question about self-reporting?

Mr. LUBRANO: Oh, in the methodology of the study?


Mr. LUBRANO: The study was - no. I mean, nobody went into particular homes and asked them - and looked around for themselves, but these were - this was a survey that was done and it's a nationally representative survey, which means that there's very little margin of error, and it actually takes into account a lot of changes - a lot of populations: urban, rural and suburban. So its accuracy is well known, well documented.

ROBERTS: The study is by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It says 47 million people, 17 million of them children, last year were unable to consistently get enough food to eat. That's the topic today as you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's hear from Kerry(ph) in Stockton, California. Kerry, welcome to the show.

KERRY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just - I think it's interesting, this idea with the economy and how it's affecting nutrition. I mean, as parents, we have four kids, we're six people on one teacher's salary. And this year, we went from the knowledge of the importance of packing our own kids' lunches and doing non-sugar cereal in the morning, and going from a healthy morning breakfast and lunch to giving into the free lunch the school is - the free breakfast that school is now offering, and the cheap lunch that they're offering and kind of sacrificing and having - going from, you know, nutritious breakfast and lunch to what I feel is not as nutritious when they're getting breakfast pizza at school. And they're getting sausage on a stick, which is basically a corndog, which I would never feed my kids.

So I feel like there's like a sacrifice you're making so, you know, healthy kids with good nutrition and the knowledge of that, but the economy has kind of forced us into taking the school lunch, which, unfortunately, is not the healthiest. And I think with - finance really does impact nutrition, and I see it within my own family. We have the knowledge but not the funds to provide the best nutrition possible for our kids, which people do.

ROBERTS: Kerry, thanks for your call. We have a call from Jim(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Jim, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I am in charge of a free lunch in downtown San Antonio at our Catholic worker house. What used to be our sort of end-of-the-month average of 65 or 70 folks is now starting to become our first-of-the-month average there. Where we used to see maybe 35 or 45 people at the first of the month, now just at the beginning of the month, we're starting to see more on the order of 65 folks.

I'm also interested in what your guest was saying about the empty calories being the cheapest food to buy. Also - yeah, that's just the reality for a lot of the folks that come into our place for lunch are - we provide the - we try to provide as balanced a meal as we can with a fresh salad every day and, you know, pretty hearty fair. But the reality is that when we ask somebody what they're eating, otherwise, it's usually things like ramen noodles and that sort of thing that are really just empty calories.

ROBERTS: Jim, thanks for your call. Alfred Lubrano, we're hearing both from the breadth of our callers and this study that this - sort of getting a sense of the scope of the problem. You quote in your article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that you quote someone saying solving these problems is not rocket science. What does he mean by that?

Mr. LUBRANO: Well, I guess the shorthand is money, to a degree. President Obama, when he was running for president, vowed that he would end childhood hunger by 2015, which was a pretty bold statement. We can't end poverty. I think everyone pretty much agrees on that. But there are many who say that childhood hunger in the United States can be handled. It's a case of a number of things, first of them: national will. And you'd be surprised how many people would balk at something as simple as wanting to feed a child.

But what we need from the reporting that I've done - and I'm, by no means, an expert - but what people will say is that first of all we need a higher minimum wage. We need to pay people living wage in this country. The gap between the haves and have-nots has widened and while that sounds like a clich�, I mean, it's very much true and becoming more and more evident.

The anti-hunger experts in United States will say that you need more money for food stamps, or SNAP. The Bush administration waited a long time and did not increase food stamp monies. When President Obama became president, he increased food stamps from something like $3 billion per month in the United States to $4.8 billion a month, and that sounds like a lot of money at first blush. But you realize that it's basically going from $92 in 2006 per person per month to $133 per person per month, and that's really not a lot. So people say that has to get pumped up.

There needs to be more money for child nutrition for the WIC programs, for the lunch and breakfast programs. And it just - in order to get to what Obama is talking about in 2015, it would take a massive amount of will and energy that a lot of anti-hunger experts are saying they don't quite see right now.

ROBERTS: Alfred Lubrano covers poverty for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He's also the author of "Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams." He joined us from his office at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Thank you so much.

Mr. LUBRANO: Thank you.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.