The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its new report on household food insecurity last week, showing that food insecurity continues to improve following historic highs during the Great Recession and its aftermath. The share of households that struggle to consistently afford an adequate diet fell from 12.5 percent in 2016 to 11.8 percent last year.
Despite that positive news for many families and communities, the numbers reveal four trends about food insecurity that should still concern us.
1. Food insecurity still hasn’t returned to prerecession levels.
At its peak in 2011, almost 50 million people, or 16.4 percent of the population, were food insecure, while the new estimates put that number at about 40 million, or 12.5 percent, for 2017.
But about 36 million people, or 12.2 percent, were food insecure in 2007. Although the economy has improved for many families, many continue to face trade-offs between food budgets and other basic expenses. Among these are families with children, whose rate of food insecurity was largely unchanged from the previous year and continues to be higher than the overall rate.
2. Food insecurity is not distributed equally across the country.
In 11 states, the rate of food insecurity exceeds the national average, and in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico, the rate exceeds 17 percent of households. Nonmetropolitan areas have higher rates than the national average, as do households in principal cities.
3. Race and ethnicity matter.
Households headed by black and Hispanic people have higher rates of food insecurity than white households. Twenty-two percent of black households and 18 percent of Hispanic households are food insecure, while fewer than 1 in 10 white households are, even though the absolute number of white households is higher.
The USDA report does not provide separate analyses for American Indian families because of the small population numbers, but prior research has shown that food insecurity rates are high among American Indian families and communities.
4. Proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) pose risks to the gains we’ve made in reducing food insecurity.
The USDA data illustrate the vital role SNAP plays in reducing food insecurity. Fifty-eight percent of food-insecure households from the USDA survey received nutrition assistance from one or more federal programs, including SNAP, in the past month. Although some might conclude that lower food insecurity rates render SNAP less essential, SNAP is a key reason so many households are food secure. The number of food-insecure households would be higher without it.
SNAP’s role in helping families achieve food security should be front and center as the House and Senate continue their conference negotiations this month around the reauthorization of SNAP as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. Earlier analyses of the House version suggest many working families might lose benefits if the proposed work requirements are adopted. If so, future numbers of food-insecure households might increase.