Volunteers fill bags with food for part of their backpack school lunch program at the Cleveland Foodbank in Cleveland on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
There were over 46 million Americans on food stamps (SNAP) last year, and in 2010 the program kept 3.9 million people from falling into poverty. Nearly half of all recipients are children, and 76 percent of participating families have at least one employed person.
That’s a good sign that SNAP expanded exactly as it was designed to during the Great Recession and as the economy continues to struggle. But if we actually want to end hunger in the wealthiest nation in the history of forever, we have a long way to go. Three studies released this week tell us a lot about where we are and where we need to be.
Consider the Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) report, Food Hardship in America 2011. Since January 2008, 1,000 different households have been asked every day by Gallup, “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”
More people answered “Yes” in the third and fourth quarters of 2011 (19.2 percent and 19.4 percent) than in any period since the fourth quarter of 2008. The national rate for the entire year was 18.6 percent, up from 18 percent in 2010 and the highest annual rate in the four years FRAC has tracked the data. Every region had higher food hardship rates than in 2010 except for the Mountain Plains, with the range varying between a low of 16.2 percent in the Mid-Atlantic and nearly 22 percent in the Southeast. Mississippi had the worst rate of any state, with one in four households suffering food hardship, while “the best” state was North Dakota, which still had one in ten households struggling with hunger.
So why is food hardship still on the rise even with recent economic growth?
“Rising food prices, continuing high unemployment and underemployment, and flat food stamp benefit allotments all contributed to the high food hardship rate in 2011,” said FRAC president Jim Weill.
The flat SNAP benefit allotments are particularly conspicuous. The report notes that the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan—which is what the government views as the cheapest nutritionally adequate diet and is the basis for setting benefit levels—increased by 6.2 percent between December 2010 and December 2011, while benefit levels remained the same.
That’s a significant loss of purchasing power for program participants who in most states must have incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty line—about $24,100 a year for a family of three—and receive an average benefit of $4.40 a day per person. In essence, the government defined the minimum need but hasn’t raised benefit levels so people can afford it. FRAC therefore recommends increasing benefits so that households can indeed purchase a nutritionally adequate diet.