The Growing Threat of Food Insecurity in America


When discussing the Great Recession, there are two standards for measuring its impact on the average household. The first is unemployment, which is currently hovering at 9.6%, down from a high of 10.1% in October 2009. The second is foreclosures, which hit a 50-year high in 2007 and have risen every year since then.

For much of the past three years, the recession narrative has been told in terms of these two dire numbers, showing how a failing economy has made it harder and harder to cling to the middle-class ideal of homeownership and a steady job. Recently, however, a third, even more disturbing figure has gained relevance: the number of Americans on food stamps.

Food Stamp Use Explodes

Food stamps, officially titled the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are often used by out-of-work breadwinners, for whom they can be a lifeline after unemployment benefits run out. However, food stamps are actually designed to help working families that aren't bringing home enough food to feed all their members. In this context, the program's size reflects not only unemployment but also underemployment -- the workers whose jobs don't pay enough to put food on the table.

In its most recent report on the program, the Department of Agriculture reported that the number of Americans who rely on food stamps rose to a record-breaking 42.4 million people in August 2010. That's a 17% increase from August 2009 and a 58.5% increase from August 2007. The new numbers suggest that, for many Americans, the recession is getting worse, not better. Put another way, across the country, almost 14% of Americans are unable to feed themselves.

SNAP enrollment varies greatly from state to state. In Tennessee, Mississippi and the District of Columbia -- among the worst-hit areas in the country -- more than one in five citizens receive SNAP benefits. But even states whose SNAP rolls are below the average, like Nevada and Idaho, experienced double-digit increases in program enrollment over the last year.

Food Insecurity

Although money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) enabled the Agriculture Department to increase food stamp allowances, the program's benefits are far from lavish: On average, participants in SNAP receive $124 per month, or $287 per household. While this money helps keep food on the table, many families find that it isn't enough to cover them through an entire month.

In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal described the scene at a Houston Walmart on the first of the month: "Parking lots come to life after 11 p.m. as customers start to stream into the stores, cramming their shopping carts full of milk, infant formula and other necessities. Then at midnight, when the government replenishes their electronic-benefit accounts with their monthly allotments of food stamps, nutritional grants for mothers with babies or other aid for needy families, they head for the registers."

As Walmart's Bill Simon notes in the article: "If you really think about it, the only reason someone gets out there in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they have been waiting for it."

Will 2009 and 2010 Be Worse Than 2008?

The Agriculture Department's measurement for hunger is "food insecurity," which it defines as "lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources." In 2008, almost 15% of Americans were food-insecure at one point or another. With a 31% increase over 2007's food-insecurity numbers, 2008 was the worst year since 1995, when Agriculture began tracking food security. Perhaps most disturbingly, the department's surveys demonstrate that only 55% of food-insecure households participate in food stamps and other government nutrition-assistance programs.

While food-insecurity numbers have yet to be released for 2009 and 2010, the sharp increase in food stamp enrollment over the last two years suggests that food insecurity has increased over that period. According to Agriculture, approximately 25% of Americans currently participate in one of the group's 15 food and nutrition assistance programs.

Unemployment and foreclosure are more noticeable in the short term, but the long-term effects of food insecurity may be more devastating. In a 2009 article in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, authors Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl found that, over the past 30 years, almost half of all American children had been on food stamps at one time or another. One effect of this rising food insecurity may be a change in height: Until the 1970s, Americans were the tallest people in the world but are now, on average, two inches shorter than the top-ranked Dutch. In fact, American men are currently ranked ninth in the world, and American women are 15th.

Shorter and Unhealthier

Although Americans aren't the tallest people in the world, they are the third fattest, falling right behind American Samoa and Kiribati. This, too, may be a side effect of food insecurity: When families can't afford higher-priced vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, they often resort to processed foods that pack cheap calories, along with a lot of fat, sodium and empty carbohydrates. While these foods fill the belly with minimal cost, they can also lead to obesity, heart disease and a host of other health problems.

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Studies have also shown that food-insecure children tend to be sick more often and recover more slowly than those with sufficient access to food. According to researchers, food insecurity increases the likelihood that a child will have problems in school, be unable to concentrate or will have difficulty learning. While America's education system faces a range of problems that are unrelated to food insecurity, school officials in Arkansas -- the state with the highest rate of childhood hunger -- have begun exploring the link between hunger and classroom performance.

While the 2007 recession led to a vast explosion in food insecurity, American hunger has been a growing problem for decades, and resolving it will take a long-term, concerted effort. And with malnourishment contributing to problems ranging from health care to education, it's clear that consistent access to good, nutritious food is vital for America's growth. For now, however, the problem seems to be only getting worse.

Originally published