The goodwill of taxpayers and charities has helped stabilize rising hunger rates, but more than 17 million households still reported having difficulty buying all the food they needed last year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 2009, nearly 50 million Americans -- 15 percent of U.S. families -- were "food insecure," meaning they were "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their family members" -- either they didn't have enough money or lacked other resources to buy food. One in 10 families with children worried about food at some point in the year. Between 500,000 and 1 million families were so strapped the children had to go without eating at some point.
The hunger rates remained steady from 2008, when they jumped to the highest level since the USDA began tracking hunger in 1995. Dramatically rising unemployment might have continued that jump, agency officials said, if the government had not stepped up food aid.
"There is a silver lining to some degree in the fact that this food insecurity did not increase," Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told reporters. "Between 2008 and 2009, the number of unemployed people across the United States went from just under 9 million people to over 14 million."
The United States is increasingly a safety-net nation, with one in four Americans now enrolled in one of the 15 federal feeding programs. Forty-two million people currently receive monthly benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. That's up by 10 million from a year ago.
Taxpayers buy breakfast and lunch for 30 million children. More than 9 million mothers receive federal help feeding infants and children under the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program.
"This extended recession has placed people in circumstances where they need to rely on programs like this," said Mark Nord, a researcher with the USDA's Economic Research Service and the lead author of the food insecurity report. "I know meeting with, whether it's government offices across the country or with food pantries and food banks -- in all of those instances people have reflected the fact, to me, anecdotally that they are serving people who never envisioned in their lifetimes needing to turn to either a state or a county for federal assistance or to a food bank for assistance."
Those food banks, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars worth of food from the federal government to supplement private donations, are also now inundated with the new poor. Feeding America, an organization that runs a nationwide network of food banks and bills itself as "the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity," said the number of people seeking help from its food banks has increased 46 percent over the past four years, from 25 million to 37 million.
The upcoming holiday season promises even greater demand.
"What people may not generally understand is about 20 million children in this country are fed through school lunch and breakfast programs," said Ross Fraser of Feeding America. "When schools close for Thanksgiving and Christmas for two or three weeks, those are really rough times for us. Because all of those school meals disappear and we've got to make up the difference."
And in the new year, it may cost everyone more to put food on the table. A variety of economic forecasters, including those of the U.S. government, predict major food price increases across the board in 2011.