U.S. food insecurity reduced, but still affects millions: USDA

By Molly O'Toole

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The percentage of U.S. households where adults sometimes go hungry or are unable to put enough food on the table declined last year, United States Department of Agriculture figures released on Wednesday showed.

In 2010, 5.4 percent, or 6.4 million households, had "very low food security," defined as a reduction of food intake by at least one household member and a disruption of eating patterns because the household lacked resources for food.

The data was announced in the USDA report, "Household Food Security in the United States in 2010."

The prevalence of such low levels of food security declined from 5.7 percent in 2009, with the greatest improvement seen for households with children, women living alone, and those with annual incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line.

But USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said in a conference call with reporters that: "As long as hunger exists in this country of ours we can and must do more."

The report said 85.5 percent of American households were "food secure" last year, meaning they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all their members, said the USDA's Economic Research Service, which compiled the report.

But the remaining households -- 14.5 percent, or 17.2 million -- were food insecure at least sometime during 2010. That overall rate of food insecure households was essentially unchanged from 2009.

Despite the near stagnant rate of food insecure households, 14.5 percent is still one of the highest recorded levels since national monitoring of food security began in 1995.

The rate of food insecurity spiked in 2008 following the advent of the recession and remained high in following years.

The more severe range of very low food security followed a similar pattern, increasing sharply from 2007 to 2008, though it declined slightly from 2009 to 2010.

The report measures "the extent to which difficult economic conditions result in food hardships in U.S. households," according to primary author and sociologist for the ERS Food Economics Division Alisha Coleman-Jensen.

She told reporters on the conference call that 400,000 fewer households experienced very low food security in 2010 than 2009, although the total remained above pre-recession levels.

Nearly 60 percent of all food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs during November, the month before the annual survey on which the report was based.

The December 2010 survey covered 44,757 households, a representative sample of 119 million U.S. households.

"The message we've tried to convey clearly to Congress is that we are being good stewards of the American tax dollars," said Concannon, in response to a question about possible moves to cut funding for federal food assistance. "(These programs) are responding to what is going on in the economy."

"Nothing makes us happier than when a person becomes ineligible ... That is a victory."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)