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The number of American families struggling to put enough food on the table remains at record high levels. That's according to new government figures out today. One in nearly seven households last year was classified as food insecure. That's about the same proportion as the year before but far higher than before the recession.
And food insecurity is a particular problem for single mothers, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Before the recession, about one in 10 families had a problem getting enough to eat. But in 2008, things got a lot worse and it's pretty much stayed that way ever since. The Agriculture Department today said that almost 18 million households had trouble putting food on the table last year and that in about seven million of those, people didn't have enough to eat.
JAMES ZILIAK: There are many Americans who are still struggling with the lingering effects of the Great Recession.
FESSLER: James Ziliak, heads the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. He says it's troubling that the numbers haven't gotten better, especially when it comes to those families that face the most difficult challenges.
ZILIAK: This is worrisome because the expectation is that in the coming year, food prices are likely to go up quite a bit, owing to the drought in the Midwest and much of the country, so this is likely to be an ongoing challenge.
FESSLER: Food banks around the country say they're already seeing the impact. Rhonda Chafin runs the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, which covers a largely rural area of the state.
RHONDA CHAFIN: We're serving more people and we have less food.
FESSLER: She says that demand for food from local pantries and soup kitchens has grown more than 50 percent since 2007, and there's no sign that things are about to let up. Chafin says any economic recovery has yet to be felt in her part of the country.
CHAFIN: We believe that families are really struggling to make ends meet and to, you know, purchase food, and to have funds to pay for rent and fuel, and then also some of their other basic needs for medications and things like that.
FESSLER: She says many of those turning to local food pantries are elderly, or single mothers who might be working but aren't earning enough to get by. In fact, the government says that more than a third of households with children headed by single mothers had trouble getting enough food last year, slightly more than the year before. Overall, one in five children in the U.S. lives in a food-insecure household. That's a big concern for Tom Nelson.
TOM NELSON: The fact that we've got 16.6 million kids in households where the kids are at risk of not having the food nutrition they need, that's not what should be going on in this country.
FESSLER: Nelson is president of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit that's working to end childhood hunger. But he says that as bad as the numbers are, they could be worse.
NELSON: About 57 percent of the families that are food insecure report receiving assistance from one of the federal food programs. So what it tells us, if those programs are threatened or are lessened, it's going to put even more people into a food insecure situation.
FESSLER: Which is one reason that Nelson is in Charlotte, North Carolina this week at the Democratic National Convention with actor Jeff Bridges. They're both trying to drum up support for anti-hunger programs, such as food stamps. Such programs are facing steep budget cuts in Congress, mostly from Republicans who think the economy would be better off with smaller government. Nelson says he also went to the Republican National Convention last week to make the case that childhood hunger has to be addressed.
NELSON: We're finding that both parties are really, to a large extent, particularly at the federal level, way too quiet on this issue.
FESSLER: And indeed, neither President Obama nor his Republican challenger Mitt Romney had any comment today about the new numbers. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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