WASHINGTON – More than 12 million American families either didn't have enough food or worried about someone in the family going hungry last year, the Agriculture Department (search) said Friday.
Hunger-relief advocates said the figure, about the same as the previous year, showed a lack of progress. A department spokeswoman pointed to government efforts to sign up more people for food and nutrition assistance programs (search).
About 12.6 million families, or 11.2 percent of all U.S. households, had at least one member who went hungry or worried about hunger at some time last year, said the department's "food security" report, which was released as millions of people made plans for next week's Thanksgiving holiday feast.
In 2002, the figure was about 12 million families, or 11.1 percent of households.
In about one-third of the 12.6 million families, or 3.9 million, at least one person went hungry because there wasn't enough money to feed everyone. The other two-thirds of families avoided hunger by eating less varied diets, participating in federal food assistance (search) programs or tapping into supplies at community food banks and emergency kitchens.
More than 36 million people, including 13 million children, experienced hunger or worried about it last year. Two years ago, nearly 35 million people fell into the categories, including 13.1 million children.
"These numbers are simply unacceptable for the wealthiest nation on earth," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a hunger relief organization. "Our political leaders need to picture the faces behind these statistics and begin a sustained effort to dramatically reduce this trend."
Agriculture Department spokeswoman Jean Daniel said critics should look at the report "within the context of the many efforts that USDA is doing" to reach out to people, including immigrants and Spanish-language speakers, who may be eligible but are not receiving food stamps, free or reduced-price school lunches and other federal food or nutrition assistance.
President Bush's 2005 budget asked for more than $50 billion for federal nutrition programs, she said, up from the $38.4 billion budgeted for the programs in 2002.
"It's been a top priority of the president, the secretary (of agriculture) and the undersecretary to ensure that all eligible people know about the programs and can access them with dignity and respect," she said.
The hunger report is compiled by the department's Economic Research Service. It is based on a Census Bureau survey of about 60,000 households, and traditionally is released after the Census Bureau issues its poverty report.
In August, the bureau reported that the number of people living in poverty grew by 1.3 million last year to 35.8 million, for the third consecutive increase. Increases in poverty usually mean more people are experiencing or facing hunger.
The Food Research and Action Center, which works to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, said that while federal nutrition programs are keeping the numbers from getting worse, their reach remained inadequate.
"More hunger and food insecurity mean more children who have trouble at school, more illness among children and adults, less ability to purchase a balanced and nutritious diet and higher levels of anxiety for parents trying to make ends meet," said Lynn Parker, the group's director of child nutrition.