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49 Million Americans Struggle to Put Food on the Table

Study Shows 'Food Insecurity' Is Still a Serious Problem in the U.S.
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 7, 2011 -- The number of Americans struggling to put adequate food on the table remains at an all-time high, a new government report shows.

The report, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), finds that 49 million Americans, or one in six, lacked the resources to eat sufficient, regular meals in 2010.

That number was essentially unchanged since its peak in 2009.

The report is based on an annual survey of 45,000 U.S. households conducted by the U.S. Census.

"This report underscores what we already know: household food insecurity remains a serious problem in the United States," said Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, in a news conference.

But Concannon also noted that it could have been worse.

The report found that the number of people living in the most difficult circumstances, those in households with very low food security, declined slightly from 5.7% to 5.4% of all households in the survey.

Concannon credits federal food assistance programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) with preventing a deeper slide into poverty and hunger. "These programs keep millions of Americans out of poverty."

Experts said that given high unemployment and the pinch of rising housing costs they were surprised the number had not climbed.

"The economy is really affecting the basic needs of households," says Barbara Laraia, PhD, associate professor in the Center for Health & Community at the University of California, San Francisco. "If people are struggling to get enough food, that means they're really constrained."

Food Insecurity and Health

Laraia says food insecurity isn't just a measure of how much people are eating. It's also a measure of diet quality and overall health.

People who are food insecure often forgo healthy foods like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean cuts of meat. That's because those foods are more expensive than processed and fast foods, which often contain high amounts of fat, sodium, and added sugar.

"Households that are both food insecure and poor have higher rates of obesity among kids and women, especially," Laraia says.

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