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Last year, millions of Americans were hungry. Then Congress cut food stamps.

Millions of Americans had trouble buying food last year — one area where the US could stand more of a recovery.
Millions of Americans had trouble buying food last year — one area where the US could stand more of a recovery.
Joe Raedle

In 2013, 17.5 million US households were what the US Department of Agriculture calls "food insecure," according to a new report. That means that at some point last year, a lack of money made it difficult to buy food. Not only that, but 6.8 million households had "very low food security." In those homes, "the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources."

Keep in mind that's 6.8 million homes, not 6.8 million people. The number of people affected is even greater.

Of those very-low-food-security households, 97 percent reported that an adult cut down their meals or skipped meals altogether, and 87 percent said this had happened in at least three months of the year. Two-thirds of respondents said they had not eaten despite being hungry, and 45 percent reported losing weight due to lack of money for food. That comes out to just over 3 million households in which someone was losing weight because they couldn't eat enough. And 23 percent of very-low-food-security households had an adult who at times went without eating for a full day at a time in 3 or more months last year. That comes out to more than one and a half million households out of that 6.8 million.

The numbers aren't merely high; they're only barely getting better, despite the economic recovery. 14.3 percent of households were food-insecure last year, barely changed from 2012 but down from 14.9 percent in 2011. And the share of households considered "very low" security was 5.6 percent, "essentially unchanged" from 2011 and 2012, as the USDA puts it.

Food insecurity

Source: USDA

There are a few big points to draw from this report. One is that even as so many headline numbers — unemployment, GDP growth, stock market index levels — are bouncing back, the number of Americans who report they have trouble eating is holding relatively steady, at levels it first hit during the recession. So even when, for example, Friday's unemployment report shows the economy added a projected 230,000 jobs, as Bloomberg's consensus reflects, there are plenty of reasons (17.5 or 6.8 million, depending on how you look at it) not to celebrate.

Another thing to note is that the report mostly doesn't cover the period after food stamp cuts went into effect. In November 2013, a temporary boost to SNAP expired, and this year, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law $8.7 billion in food stamp cuts, a reduction of around $90 per month for 850,000 households, as MSNBC's Ned Resnikoff reported. (And $8.7 billion is a compromise amount; House Republicans initially wanted much steeper cuts.)

That could elevate next year's numbers, as 46 percent of food-insecure people were on SNAP last year. So even while the number of SNAP beneficiaries is starting to fall off, as the Wall Street Journal's Neil Shah reports today, those who are still on the program could be even worse off than they were before.

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