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Hungry in the US. Hungry in South Carolina.

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More than 42.2 million Americans lived in households that were struggling against hunger in 2015, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service. The 2015 numbers represent a significant decrease from 2014, with the rate declining from 15.4 to 13.4 percent.

“These numbers of people struggling in food-insecure households are better than the last few years, but they are still above pre-recession levels,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), which advocates for policies to address hunger and undernutrition nationally. Weill called on policymakers to do more to raise employment rates and wages, and to protect and strengthen federal nutrition programs.

One key positive development is that the rate of households with food-insecure children dropped below pre-recession levels and in fact is the lowest in any year since this survey began in 1998.

Other findings from the USDA report include:

  • The rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with children headed by single women or single men, women and men living alone, and Black- and Hispanic-headed households.
  • The number of individuals in households that faced the deepest struggles with hunger – “very low food security” – was 4.6 percent in 2015.
  • The number of children living in food-insecure households in 2015 improved by more than 2 million, declining from 15.3 million in 2014 to 13.1 million in 2015, with the rate among children declining from 20.9 percent to 17.9 percent.
  • Households in more rural areas are experiencing considerably deeper struggles with hunger compared to those inside metropolitan areas The rates of food insecurity in households in rural areas was 15.4 percent, compared to 12.2 percent inside metropolitan areas.
  • The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably from state to state from 2013-2015, ranging from 8.5 percent in North Dakota to 20.8 percent in Mississippi.  South Carolina’s three-year average rate of food insecurity was 13.2 percent, down from 13.9 percent for 2012-2014. South Carolina’s 2013-2015 average rate was 28th highest nationally.

Not having enough food harms health, learning and productivity, and it increases health care and other costs for families, employers and taxpayers, experts said.

“In adults, we see an association between food security and nutrition-related health issues,” Dr. Sonya Jones, director of the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities at the University of South Carolina. “Some of that must be rooted in a lifetime experience of poor diet and some related to the financial burden of the diseases as they develop.”

Among children, food insecurity is associated with both health and developmental problems, including cognitive problems, tooth decay, iron deficiency anemia, asthma and depression. Among adults, food hardship is commonly associated with mental health problems, diabetes and hypertension, a recent review of scientific literature in the journal Health Affairs has found.

The authors of the Health Affairs review, Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois and James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky, pointed to the critical role that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays in reducing food insecurity.

“Simply put, SNAP should be viewed as an important health care intervention for low-income Americans,” the authors wrote. To further enhance SNAP’s effectiveness, the men recommend increasing SNAP benefits for at least a subset of participants (e.g., those in high-cost urban areas), reducing barriers in applying and recertifying for SNAP, and raising the gross-income test for eligibility.

SNAP provides about $1.40 per person per meal, and 70 percent of participants in South Carolina are in families with children and 27 percent in families with disabled or elderly members.

A report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers said many SNAP households frequently run out of benefits before the end of the month. (SNAP participants generally receive benefits in one monthly installment, and spend close to 80 percent of benefits within two weeks of receipt. Some studies have shown that SNAP participants’ caloric intake falls 10 to 25 percent over the course of the month.)

The United States Department of Agriculture, using data from surveys conducted annually by the Census Bureau, has released estimates since 1995 of the number of people in households that are food insecure. Food-insecure households are those that are not able to afford an adequate diet at all times in the past 12 months. For states, the USDA reports three-year averages to give a better estimate of the number of households experiencing food insecurity.

Written by Mike Compton
Mike Compton is a volunteer with SC Appleseed. He has 40 years of experience in the news industry, including journalism, research, and financial analysis.