MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The number of people living in poverty went up last year, along with the number of people who are out of work. According to figures released today by the Agriculture Department, the number of people without enough food to eat held steady.
But that's hardly good news, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: The numbers are striking. Some 50 million Americans lived in households last year that had a hard time getting enough to eat, at least at some point during the year. Seventeen million children and at least a half million of those children faced the most dire conditions. They had inadequate diets or even missed meals because their families didn't have enough money for food.
Mr. KEVIN CONCANNON (Undersecretary, Agriculture Department): Household food insecurity remains a serious problem across the United States.
FESSLER: Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon says there's a reason the hunger numbers hit a record high in 2008 and stayed there in 2009.
Mr. CONCANNON: It is a considerable reflection of what is going on in the economy. So jobs, employment, the overall economic health of the country are a major portion of it.
FESSLER: But that begs the question: Why then didn't the numbers go even higher last year when millions more Americans were out of work and poverty was on the rise?
(Soundbite of a shopping cart)
FESSLER: It appears, says Concannon and others, that the main reason is the record growth in the use of the food stamp program. That's something that the cashier at the Super Saver Grocery and Deli in Washington, D.C. says she's seen with her customers.
MAMA(ph): Yeah, they use it more than last year. Unexpected people.
FESSLER: Unexpected, says the cashier who gives her name only as Mama, because those using food stamps here are better dressed than they used to be. In fact, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits, which food stamps are now called, have become pretty mainstream over the past year and a half. Forty two million Americans, or one in eight, now use them.
Ms. ELAINE WAXMAN (Vice President, Policy and Research, Feeding America): I think if there was ever evidence that SNAP is critical, this is it.
FESSLER: Elaine Waxman is a vice president with Feeding America, the nation's leading food bank network. She notes that the food stamp program was expanded last year by Congress as part of the Economic Recovery Bill. And she says it clearly has helped contain hunger.
Ms. WAXMAN: As we said, the numbers didn't go in the direction we expected. I think it's largely a tribute to the role of the safety net.
FESSLER: And it's not only food stamps, about a million more children got free and reduced price meals at school last year.
All this is bound to come up over the next few weeks, as Congress debates reauthorizing and expanding the school lunch and other child nutrition programs. The $4.5 billion bill has stalled over a proposal to trim future food stamp benefits to help pay for it.
Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group, thinks those cuts make even less sense in light of today's report.
Mr. JIM WEILL (President, Food Research and Action Center): It's our hope and expectation that in the lame duck, Congress will pass the Child Nutrition Bill and do the SNAP restoration. And we think there's going to be an opportunity to do both.
FESSLER: But there's also a lot of pressure to cut government spending, which Republicans say is hurting the very economic growth that's needed to reduce hunger in the long run. And some people think the extent of their problem has been overblown.
Robert Rector is a poverty expert with the Heritage Foundation.
Mr. ROBERT RECTOR (Senior Policy Analyst, Heritage Foundation): They clearly exaggerate these numbers for political effect.
FESSLER: Rector says many of the people the government says are facing hunger, might in fact have only missed one meal during the course of the year. And he says the vast majority of those considered food insecure, as the government puts it, barely had to cut back at all.
Mr. RECTOR: It's regrettable that these households have temporary food shortages. That means they have to eat less in a given day or given week. But it is certainly not a condition of chronic undernutrition or chronic food shortages.
FESSLER: And he worries that what might be a temporary setback for some families will lead to a permanent increase in government spending on food aid.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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