Another Dismal Record: 50 Million Went Hungry in 2009

Food stamps helped significantly, but Congress is busy cutting funding for them.

By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 16, 2010

Thanksgiving is next week and food is on the mind. But a record number of Americans can’t afford enough of it. According to the USDA , 50 million Americans faced what’s called "food insecurity," also known as hunger, in 2009. That’s about a million more than in 2008 and the highest since the government started collecting data on hunger in 1995. Almost seven million households had to reduce the amount of food they eat or change eating patterns. Most just don’t have the resources to buy enough.

Some are more likely to be hungry. Over 36 percent of female-headed families with children were food insecure. Black and Latino families were more than twice as likely as whites to experience food insecurity.

The food stamp program, which has expanded massively in the recession, has softened what could have become even more grave levels of hunger. The program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, got a significant injection from the stimulus in 2009, which included an increase in the amount of assistance provided to families.

Forty-two million people receive assistance through SNAP. That’s up by 10 million from the same time last year. Thirty million children eat breakfast and lunch through free school lunch programs, and nine million mothers rely on the WIC program to buy food for babies and children.

But in August, amidst a swirling frenzy about the deficit, Congress gutted the benefit hike to offset other needed spending to pay teachers salaries. As a result, a family of four will lose $59 a month in food stamp benefits once the gouging goes into effect at the end of 2014. That loss is sure to drive the number of food insecure families upward, especially since unemployment is expected to remain high for years and jobless benefits may not be extended. After unemployment benefits run out, there’s very little left in the form of income assistance, with what’s left of welfare prohibitively difficult to access.

At the time of the cut, Democrats in the House promised to restore funding to the food stamp program during the lame duck session, but there’s not been much talk of that recently, and with a packed legislative agenda, it’s just not clear that 2014 will really be on the top of anyone’s list. Meanwhile, more money may get pulled from the food stamp program to pay for another anti-hunger program. In August, the Senate voted to fund a school lunch program with offsets from SNAP. If the House does the same, Congress will have addressed hunger by making families hungrier.

Though food assistance may not top anyone’s list, unemployment insurance does. Two million unemployed people will start to lose the benefit if Congress fails to pass an extension by the end of the month. Advocates are asking people to call their congresspeople today to press them to extend the benefit in the lame duck. Once the newly elected Republicans start steaming into D.C. in January, the safety net’s only likely to get chopped more.