Americans face food insecurity despite economic growth

People shop in a grocery store July 8, 2014, in Miami, Florida.

The number of American households suffering from food insecurity is down from its peak in 2011, the USDA said in a report released this week.

The decline was a modest 2.7 percent — bringing the number down to 17.5 million households where access to enough food for healthy and active living (how the USDA defines food security) was inconsistent or not dependable.

The report also said the number of households with severe food insecurity, including one member of the household who is going hungry, remained unchanged at almost 7 million. One out of five of these homes include children.

While researchers report that parents often shield their children from hunger, in 360,000 households, food availability was so poor that children were also affected.

“In these households, with very low food security among children, parents reported that children were hungry, but they just didn’t have enough money for food or that children were skipping meals, and in the most extreme situations going the whole day without eating,” says Alisha Coleman-Jensen, co-author of the USDA study.

Nevertheless, the number of extreme food instability households dropped from 1.2 to 0.9 percent.

Households with food instability are not evenly spread out around the country. There are more of them in urban and rural areas, and fewer in the suburbs. Southern states are hit hardest, while North Dakota, which is in the middle of an oil boom, has the lowest rate at 8.7 percent.

The nationwide numbers are grim, despite the fact that the economy has been improving, albeit modestly, and unemployment is decreasing. Coleman-Jensen says when researchers took into account employment, income and other factors, the most significant barrier for improved food security in the U.S. appeared to be inflation in food costs.

Graphic courtesy of USDA Economic Research Service.

“In certain categories, like proteins and dairy, they’ve been incurring double-digit inflation. You also have increasing demand for select commodities around the world, and that’s likely to keep an overall upward pressure on costs,” says Erin Lash, a consumer products analyst with the Chicago-based research firm MorningStar.

Lash says droughts are also partly to blame for higher food prices in certain categories. For example, beef prices rose 10 percent last year, and pork prices rose as much as 7.5 percent. Both meats will likely see price increases this year as well, as consumers feel the effects of a drought in Texas and Oklahoma, and a Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus that killed 7 million piglets last year.

In 2015, the USDA predicts food prices overall will see more normal levels of inflation, around 2 to 3 percent. But USDA co-author Coleman-Jensen says it is too early to predict whether that will significantly improve America’s household food security problem.

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