WASHINGTON – More than one in seven American households struggled to put enough food on the table in 2008, the highest rate since the Agriculture Department began tracking food security levels in 1995.
That's about 49 million people, or 14.6 percent of U.S. households. The numbers are a significant increase from 2007, when 11.1 percent of U.S. households suffered from what USDA classifies as "food insecurity" — not having enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.
Researchers blamed the increase in hunger on a lack of money and other resources.
President Barack Obama called the USDA's findings "unsettling." He noted that other indicators of hunger have gone up, such as the number of food stamp applications and the use of food banks. And he said his administration is committed to reversing the trend.
"The first task is to restore job growth, which will help relieve the economic pressures that make it difficult for parents to put a square meal on the table each day," Obama said in a statement.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the numbers could be higher in 2009 because of the global economic slowdown.
"This report suggests its time for America to get very serious about food security and hunger," Vilsack told reporters during a conference call.
The USDA said Monday that 5.7 percent of those who struggled for food experienced "very low food security," meaning household members reduced their food intake.
The numbers dovetail with dire economic conditions for many Americans. And they may not take the full measure of America's current struggles with hunger: Vilsack and the report's lead author, Mark Nord with USDA's economic research service, both emphasized that the numbers reflected the situation in 2008 and that the economy's continued troubles in 2009 would likely mean higher numbers next year.
The report also showed an increasing number of children in the United States are suffering. In 2008, 16.7 million children were classified as not having enough food, 4.3 million more than in 2007.
Hunger advocates said they were not surprised by the numbers, and said the problem among children, in particular, is lamentable.
"What should really shock us is that almost one in four children in our country lives on the brink of hunger," said David Beckmann, the President of Bread of the World, an advocacy organization.
Vilsack said that it would take a concerted effort to reduce the number of Americans who face a lack of food and said he hoped that the stark reality of Monday's report would inspire action. The numbers could have been much worse without adequately funded food aid programs, such as food stamps, he said.
"There's an opportunity here for the country to make a major commitment to focus on ways we can improve this process and make sure that food is safe and available for everyone," he said.