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Millions of American families struggle to get food on the table, report finds

The increase in food insecurity in 2022 reverses a decade-long decline in the number of U.S. households experiencing hunger.
Justin Sullivan
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The increase in food insecurity in 2022 reverses a decade-long decline in the number of U.S. households experiencing hunger.

Just putting three meals a day on the table was a struggle for millions of people in the U.S. last year. That's the sobering conclusion of anew report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which found hunger in the U.S. rose sharply in 2022.

The report found that 44.2 million people lived in households that had difficulty getting enough food to feed everyone in 2022, up from 33.8 million people the year prior. Those families include more than 13 million children experiencing food insecurity, a jump of nearly 45 percent from 2021.

"These numbers are more than statistics. They paint a picture of just how many Americans faced the heartbreaking challenge last year of struggling to meet a basic need for themselves and their children," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The findings reverse a decade-long decline in hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. And they reflect the loss of several pandemic-era measures designed to strengthen the social safety net, says Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who studies food insecurity and federal nutrition programs.

"A lot of the programs that had buffered people's experience during the pandemic were retired or rolled back in some way," Waxman says.

Those programs included an expanded child tax credit that gave families with children extra money, temporarily increased benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,or SNAP– formerly known as food stamps – and free school meals for every child.

At the same time, food prices and housing costs have shot up, says Kelly Horton, chief program officer at the Food Research and Action Center. And she points out an increasing number of Americans are working in unstable gig-economy jobs, like delivering groceries, driving for ride-share services or completing tasks on demand.

" So all of these things converging...we have a lot of people who are living on the edge," Horton says.

In its report, the USDA found that nearly 7 million households were so financially squeezed last year that they had to skip meals at times because there wasn't enough food to go around. Almost all of these households said they couldn't afford to eat balanced meals. In some 381,000 households with children, kids also experienced the pangs of hunger – skipping meals or going the whole day without eating. Waxman notes this could have significant health consequences, especially for kids.

"In particular, we worry about that for children because their trajectory now influences what happens to them later," says Waxman. She notes research has found children who experience food insecurity are more likely to experience worse health outcomes down the road, including cognitive or developmental delays and higher rates of hospitalization.

Overall, households with children and those of color experienced food insecurity at significantly higher rates than the national average. The rates of hunger for Black and Latino households were both more than double the rates for white households.

Food access advocates say the findings underscore the importance of protecting social safety-net programs. Right now, there's particular concern when it comes to the fate of the food assistance program known as WIC, which serves pregnant mothers and young children up to age 5.

Since the pandemic-era increases to SNAP benefits ended, more families have been turning to WIC for help with food, says Nell Menefee-Libey, public policy manager at the National WIC Association.

"We know that more families are turning to the program and find themselves needing support from WIC who may previously have not been using WIC services," Menefee-Libey says.

But some lawmakers have proposed funding cuts to WIC benefits, even as the program needs additional funding to serve the increased number of families that are seeking assistance, says Horton of FRAC.

"So there could be a case where WIC runs out of money if Congress does not give them additional funds," Horton says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.