USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon emphasized the results of an annual report released by USDA's Economic Research Service that demonstrate that federal nutrition assistance food programs are providing a valuable safety net to the most vulnerable Americans. The report "Food Security in the United States 2009" found that 17.4 million households in America had difficulty providing enough food due to a lack of resources, about the same as in 2008.
"This report highlights just how critical federal nutrition assistance programs are for American families in need and the Obama administration is working to provide greater access to this critical safety net during these difficult economic times," said Concannon. "These programs are designed to respond rapidly and automatically to emerging needs in times of economic change and will expand and contract with the economy. We anticipate that food security will improve as the economy improves but in the near-term, without these benefits, many families would face far more severe problems getting the nutritious food they need."
In more than a third of those households that reported difficulty in providing enough food, at least one member did not get enough to eat at some time during the year and normal eating patterns were disrupted due to limited resources. Food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas, and rates were substantially higher than the national average among households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households with children headed by single parents, and African-American and Hispanic households.
While the continued high levels of food insecurity are cause for concern, the fact that the numbers did not increase, despite a significant increase in unemployment and poverty in the United States between 2008 and 2009, underscores the important role of federal nutrition assistance programs in helping to prevent food insecurity. Fifty-seven percent of food-insecure households in the survey reported that they had participated in one or more of the three largest federal nutrition assistance programs within the past month. These include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp Program), the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The full report is available at: www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err108.
Federal nutrition assistance programs have seen dramatic participation growth, with major programs at or near record levels of participation. Between 2008 and 2009:
Average monthly SNAP participation increased by about 5.3 million people (an 18.7 percent increase).
One million more low-income children received free or reduced price lunches on an average school day (a 5.4 percent increase).
Over 400,000 more low-income women, infants, and children participated in WIC in an average month (a 4.8 percent increase).
Food donations through The Emergency Food Assistance Program increased by $100 million as a result of the Recovery Act, providing additional USDA Foods to thousands of food pantries and other emergency feeding organizations across the country.
"The administration remains strongly committed to nutrition assistance as an essential support for low-income people," Concannon said. "Despite recent program growth, we recognize that some eligible people in need do not take full advantage of the benefits available to them.
USDA is working closely with states to adopt policy changes and administrative practices that improve access and expand participation for potential clients:
In SNAP, the department promotes the adoption of broad-based categorical eligibility to simplify the program and ease access to benefits for clients. Forty states have now adopted BBCE.
In the school meals programs, the department promotes direct certification for free meals for children enrolled in SNAP or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), making use of these programs' eligibility procedures to simplify access to meals. The latest data show that over 80 percent of schools, enrolling over 95 percent of school children, use direct certification.
For the summer, the department encourages communities and localities to make use of the flexible authority to operate summer food programs in schools, and to use TANF funds to support summer feeding. Millions of children rely on school meals during the school year, but far fewer get such meals in the summer.
The department is also preparing to implement a series of demonstration pilots to test: enhancements to SFSP and alternative approaches to provide food benefits to children during the summer, and improvements in SNAP access and participation among low-income seniors participating in Medicare's Extra Help program.
Concannon also emphasized the importance of strong legislation to reauthorize the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs that recently stalled in Congress.
"These programs provide vital nutrition assistance to America's school-aged children and deserve our full support," he said. "And we are working closely with Congress to secure strong reforms in the Child Nutrition Program reauthorization process that will improve access to high quality meals for America's school-aged children."
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service oversees the administration of 15 nutrition assistance programs, including the child nutrition programs, that touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year.
These programs work in concert to form a national safety net against hunger. Visit www.fns.usda.gov for information about FNS and nutrition assistance program.