Oct 27, 2023 - Economy & Business

Food insecurity spiked last year, new report shows

Data: USDA Economic Research Service; Chart: Axios Visuals

The number of Americans who were food insecure — meaning they couldn't reliably afford to eat — soared last year, according to new government data.

Why it matters: The economy might've looked great in 2022 by some metrics, like the low unemployment rate, but not this one.

  • Food insecurity spiked to a level not seen since the U.S. economy was slowly recovering from the financial crisis.
  • Historic inflation rates and the disappearance of pandemic-era benefits hammered vulnerable Americans last year.

Zoom in: The share of households that couldn't reliably afford food rose to 12.8% from 10.2%, according to the report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's economic research service.

  • Food insecurity, per the USDA's definition, means that at times during the year, a given household was unable to acquire an adequate amount of food for one or more of its members because they didn't have enough money or resources.
  • It can mean households rely on a few very basic foods and reduce variety in their diets. Those with "very low" food security — 6.8 million households in 2022 — eat less food or skip meals. In a house with children, the adults might go without so that the kids can eat.

Among households with children, 17.3% are food insecure, up nearly 5 percentage points from the previous year. The last time that number was higher was in 2014.

  • About 4.1 million more children were living in food-insecure homes last year than in 2021.
  • There was a significant racial disparity as well: 22% of Black (non-Hispanic) households with children were food insecure; 21% of Hispanic households.
  • The numbers are also higher for those with children under 6 years old (17%) — where parents are more constrained by costly child care needs — and households headed by a single mother (33%).

The big picture: The disappearance of pandemic-era supports like the child tax credit, which was used by many families with children to buy food and brought down food insecurity rates in 2021, played a role here.

  • But it's complicated. Some SNAP benefits were increased in 2022 — if they hadn't these numbers would likely look a lot worse, says Chloe East, an economist and visiting fellow at the Hamilton Project.
  • This is an inflation story, too. And not just in food prices, which were up more than 10% in 2022 — energy prices and rents soared, too.

When times are tight, it can often be "easiest" to cut back on food, says Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at Share Our Strength, an anti-poverty nonprofit.

  • "If you don't pay the rent or your mortgage, you don't have a place to live. If you don't put gas in the car, you can't get to work," she says. "Food is the place that folks turn when they have to tighten the belt even more."

Zoom out: Data like this provides a close-up view of what "the economy" means to real people — as opposed to macro stats like unemployment or GDP — and helps explain the consistently low consumer sentiment we've been seeing over the last year or so.

Of note: The numbers might surprise folks following the significant growth in pay for the lowest-wage workers. While those increases were substantial, workers at the bottom of the income distribution still don't earn that much.

  • "So many households are struggling financially, even if their pay has gone up," says East, from the Hamilton Project, who has been studying pay increases.
  • Now take away their government supports and add higher food prices, "I don't find this surprising," she says.

What to watch: Davis, from Share Our Strength, is worried about the looming government shutdown. It could disrupt the WIC program, which provides food and other benefits to infants and children up to age 5.

  • Meanwhile, some members of Congress are looking to make further cuts to food benefits — that happened last time lawmakers and the president brokered a deal to keep the government running.

The bottom line: Even though the economy appeared to be doing well last year, more people went hungry.

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