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Hunger in America

Wednesday, December 1, 2004


There is a hidden epidemic in the United States. All over this country it is striking Americans of every age group and ethnicity, whether they live in cities or rural areas. And so, despite the diversity of targets, those suffering in this silent epidemic have two things in common: they are poor or low-income, and they are increasingly going without enough food. Although politicians talk about “poverty in America,” decision-makers avoid specifically mentioning the growing, and often deadly problem of hunger. George McGovern said in 1972, “To admit the existence of hunger in America is to confess that we have failed in meeting the most sensitive and painful of human needs. To admit the existence of widespread hunger is to cast doubt on the efficacy of our whole system.” Three decades later, evidence indicates that the existing system is failing a vast number of Americans. This Fact Sheet documents the epidemic.

Basic Hunger Facts Food insecurity has been described as: “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the acquisition of acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”1 Given this definition, it is estimated that 1 in 10 households in America goes hungry or is threatened by the possibility of hunger.2

  • Acccording to a Cornell University sociologist, the need to use food stamps is a common American experience that at least half of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 (four out of ten Americans in their adulthood) will face. 3 Of this group, 85% of African Americans will need to use food stamps.4 Of those that are eligible to use food stamps/program services, only 30% are successful in qualifying5 while of that group, only 15% of recipients report that their food stamp allotment lasts through the end of the month.6 Meanwhile, this already burdened food safety-net program which was designed to alleviate hunger and food insecurity, is under attack by threat of reduction of funding and ease of enrollment by policy makers.7
  • In 2002, 34.9 million people were food insecure, up 1.26 million from 2001. African American and Hispanic American households suffered the worst rates of hunger and food insecurity with 22% and 21.7%, respectively. Among the hungry, 39.1% are male, while 60% are female.8
  • 11.5% of rural families suffer from food insecurity; this is slightly lower than inner city areas, but significantly higher than suburban areas.9
  • Studies show that money which is devoted to food is the most elastic part of a family’s budget,10 as limited funds usually get allocated to fixed payments first, such as rent and utilities. Because of an increase in the nation’s poverty rate, this means food purchasing is the most compromised portion of the average family’s budget. So far in 2004, 35% of Americans have had to choose between food and rent, while 28% had to choose between medical care and food.11
  • Requests for emergency food aid increased by 19% in 2002; of this newly emerging rise in hungry and food insecure Americans, 48% of the recipients were families with children and 38% were adults with jobs. Due to the rise, shelters and other emergency food providers are reporting a reduction in supplies and therefore a forced reduction of number of times recipients can receive food.12
  • 63% of emergency food aid recipients hold a high school degree, as compared to the 84% overall US rate.13

America’s Children are Hungry: While studies show that food insecurity and hunger have been tied closely to chronic disease development and impaired psychological and cognitive functioning in children, 13 million children live in US households that must skip meals or eat less due to economic constraints.14

  • 6.18 million food insecure households have children—up by 10,000 since 2000.15 By 2002, families with children who requested food emergency services had risen by 18% nationwide.18 More than half of all food stamp recipients in 2002 were children.
  • Only 1 in 5 of the 16 million children who get free/reduced price school lunches received these same services during the summer months. That’s 12.8 million children going hungry during the 3 months between the end and the beginning of the school year. This despite Bush’s June 20, 2004 signing of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 which is supposed to expand the availability of higher quality foods in schools and extend free/reduced price food services throughout the summer months.19
  • Pilot programs such as the New York Academics and Breakfast Connection Pilot, designed to serve a breakfast to all classroom students regardless of income, found on average that when children were provided with a nutritious breakfast there was a: 23% decline in absenteeism; 29% decrease in tardiness; 49% decrease in disciplinary office visits; 24% decline in school nurse visits.20

America’s Single-Parent Families are Hungry: Nearly 1/3 of single parent families, predominantly headed by single mothers, are food insecure and/or hungry.21

  • For the period spanning 2000-2003, the federal safety net to aid low-income families (welfare, unemployment insurance, food stamps and EITC-Earned Income Tax Credit) has failed those who need it most. Particularly hard hit are single mother households where it appears that for this most vulnerable group, the safety net is evolving into a system that works well during economic boom times, but fails when it is needed most, during weak economic periods.22
  • African American single-mother households experience the greatest threat with a 73% chance of hunger or food insecurity.23

America’s Low-Income Families are Hungry: Food insecurity hits 35% of low-income households.24 Further more access to nutritious food is limited. As one low- income person commented, “You can clip a coupon for a can (of food), but you never see a coupon for fresh fruits and vegetables."25 

  • Having to stretch their budgets further and further, low-income households tend to buy less expensive, and often less nutritious foods.
  • Supermarkets offer a greater variety of foods and cheaper prices and yet the majority of low income/minority neighborhoods do not have enough supermarkets to serve the entire community effectively. Therefore, these communities generally meet their food needs at smaller, more expensive corner stores, especially at liquor/convenience marts that tend to provide less nutritious foods and very few if any fresh produce.26
  • A USDA report pointed out that due to these access and economic issues, poorer Americans are spending more for food than are their more economically-secure counterparts.27

America’s Seniors are Hungry: In 2001, 3.4 million elderly Americans lived in poverty; an additional 6.5% were considered near-poverty.28  

  • 1/3 of national emergency food service recipient households included at least one senior citizen.29
  • In 2002, 1.6 million American seniors participated in the federal Food Stamp program. This is only 1/3 of the number of seniors that are eligible for this program, among others. Reasons for low participation rates include: long complicated applications, lack of transportation options, and lack of information about available programs.
  • The extraordinary demand for programs like the Elderly Nutrition Program can keep senior citizens waiting for up to 2 or 3 months while applications are processed and approved, and before services are provided.30

America’s Immigrants are Hungry: There are no real statistics for 6 million of America’s undocumented immigrants, but those working with these families testify to the fact that children of immigrants suffer the worst: on a daily basis they go without such necessities as meat, milk and diapers.31 

  • 940,000 of the 1.4 million immigrants utilizing food stamps were rejected in 1997 because of the federal reduction of eligibility in 1996.32
  • Documented immigrants living in California, Texas and Illinois suffered 7 times worse than the general population from food insecurity. Of these same states, 8% of immigrant households suffered severe hunger; this is 10 times worse than the general average.33
  • In 1999, 37% of children lived in immigrant households that suffered food insecurity; children living in households where at least one adult was denied food stamp eligibility were 35% more likely to suffer moderate to severe hunger.34
  • The situation for documented and some legal immigrants is likely to worsen if the nation decides to adopt similar legislation to that of Arizona’s Proposition 200, which passed on November 2, 2004.35

America’s Rural Families are Hungry: 11.5% of rural households were classified by the federal government as food insecure.36  

  • Typically rural areas are less densely populated than urban areas and therefore often suffer from availability and/or access to critical social services, transportation and various food resources.37 Grocery stores in rural areas are often scattered and prices are about 4% higher than in suburban areas.38
  • 14.9% of all households and 16% of households with children served by Second Harvest Food Bank are located in rural areas.39
  • Tulare County, California is the number two county in the nation for agricultural production and yet it is one of the hungriest and poorest areas of California. Many of the county’s towns (Alpaugh, Earlimart, Plainview, Woodville, etc.) host mainly Hispanic farm-laborer families who have come to America for a better life, but have found that their employment to put cheap produce on America’s and the world’s tables have left them starving amidst the bounty. These families suffer from the worst economic and social injustices as they live in lean-tos made of plastic or cardboard, dilapidated trailers, wood shacks, caves and even parking lots and yet are surrounded by grape fields, orange and peach groves.40

* Research compiled by Shannon Laliberte, Research Associate, The Oakland Institute.