ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The government reports each year on the state of hunger in America and its survey for 2010 came out today. It found that, despite the bad economy, the number of Americans who struggled to get enough to eat did not grow. And in some cases, it declined. But that number is still a near record, almost 49 million people.
And federal officials say an increase in government food aid kept that number from going even higher, as NPR's Pam Fessler explains.
PAM FESSLER: Here's one thing that Juanita Chalumo of Washington, D.C., did to make ends meet when she was out of work this summer.
JUANITA CHALUMO: I fixed tomatoes, corn and green beans together and put a pinch of Equal in it. It's very good with onions, very tasty.
FESSLER: She also got extra food from a local pantry, Bread for the City.
CHALUMO: And then I had some neighbors that gave me something. They were African. And they gave me something to eat. That's what I lived off of.
FESSLER: Chalumo, a nursing assistant, is one of tens of millions of people in the U.S. who have difficulty putting enough food on the table. The government said today that about 17.2 million households last year were in that position, what it calls food insecure. And more than a third of those households had members who went hungry at some point during the year because they couldn't afford enough to eat.
Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon says those numbers were down slightly from 2009 and could have been a lot worse.
KEVIN CONCANNON: And I think the principal reason for that is the impact of these nutrition programs across the country - the food stamp or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, programs for women, infants and children, some of the school-based programs.
FESSLER: All of which have seen an increase in enrollment since the start of the recession. Today, more than 45 million people get food stamps, or SNAP benefits, as they're now called. That's one in seven Americans.
Concannon says children are among the main beneficiaries.
CONCANNON: There's no question in my mind that there would be catastrophic levels of people that were facing food insecurity without this.
FESSLER: Still, children in 386,000 households went hungry at some time during 2010. That's a big concern for Bill Shore. He heads Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that wants to end childhood hunger by the year 2015.
BILL SHORE: These numbers reflect the fact that, you know, we've been stuck at a very high level of hunger and food insecurity for going on three years now. And so that takes a real toll on those who are most vulnerable, which tend to be our children.
FESSLER: Shore notes that many families eligible for food aid don't get it because they haven't applied. At the same time, some of these programs face potential budget cuts, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill try to reduce the deficit. Some Republicans say food assistance programs are inefficient. And they've proposed turning SNAP into a block grant to be run by the states.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan told anti-poverty activists this summer that he's concerned about reports he's heard that SNAP is rife with fraud, and he says some changes are needed.
Representative PAUL RYAN: Help us how figure out how to reform these programs so that they can grow at more sustainable rates, and so that they really work. Help us figure out how to make sure that these things are actually getting assistance to the people who need them.
FESSLER: Agriculture Undersecretary Concannon says those reports aren't true, that food stamp fraud is down substantially, and the agency is doing what it can to clamp down on any illegal sales. He hopes the new hunger figures will make the case that people need food aid now more than ever, as the economy continues to limp along.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.