About 15% of U.S. households — 17.4 million families — lacked enough money to feed themselves at some point last year, according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
Released Monday, the study also found that 6.8 million of these households — with as many as 1 million children — had ongoing financial problems that forced them to miss meals regularly.
The number of these "food insecure" homes, or households that had a tough time providing enough food for their members, stayed somewhat steady from 2008 to 2009. But that number was more than triple compared with 2006, before the recession brought double-digit unemployment.
The findings were from a survey of 46,000 households about hunger-related issues, including whether family members were able to pay for balanced meals, skipping meals or running low on or out of food and unable to restock because of financial constraints.
While the still-high levels of food insecurity were troubling, the survey showed "a stabilization" of the problem since the recession ended, USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon said on a news conference call Monday.
Concannon said that the findings underscore the importance of federal and state programs to create a safety net to help families and children access food during sour economic times.
"We anticipate that food security will improve as the economy improves," Concannon said. But "in the near term, without these benefits, many families would face far more severe problems getting the nutritious food they need."
The survey results came amid growing concern about the demand for federal food subsidies. This month, USDA officials announced that the number of Americans getting food stamps hit a record of 42.4 million in August, a 17% gain year over year. Subsidies provided under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program jumped in July by a similar amount, 17.5%.
The debate over funding of food subsidy programs is also growing in Congress. Lawmakers adjourned for the November elections before they could reauthorize a federal law that covers the country's school meals program. There are two versions of the Child Nutrition Act — one working its way through the House and the other introduced in the Senate. The Senate measure offsets some of the costs of the program by cutting more than $2 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.