20110907 soupkitchen
A man named R.J. holds a piece of bread as he eats a free meal provided by St. Anthony foundation on September 16, 2010 in San Francisco, Calif. - 

Kai Ryssdal: There's a report out today from the Department of Agriculture on Americans who don't have enough to eat. The absolute number of people going hungry in this country is holding steady, but only because of programs like food stamps and free school lunches.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports.

Alisa Roth: The government says that last year almost 33 million Americans were what it calls "food-insecure." That is, essentially, they couldn't afford to eat right. An additional 16 million people were "very food-insecure," which means they couldn't always afford to eat enough.

That's about the same as it's been since the economic crisis began, when the number of Americans at risk of hunger went up dramatically.

Chris Ruhm is an economics professor at the University of Virginia. He says it's important to know how many people were hungry last year, but the real question is this:

Chris Ruhm: If we look over the next year, are you concerned that you're not going to have enough to eat?

He says the deterioration of the employment picture over the last couple of months is worrying.

Mark Edwards is a sociology professor at Oregon State University. He says:

Mark Edwards: Even if you have people finding jobs, if those are not jobs that pay well, they may still remain food-insecure.

His concern is that these levels of hunger could become the new normal.

I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.