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USDA: Increased Food Aid Kept Hunger Rate Steady

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Despite the bad economy, the number of Americans who struggled to get enough to eat did not grow last year, and in some cases declined, according to new government data. Still, a near-record number — almost 49 million people — were affected.

Federal officials say an increase in government food aid kept the numbers from going even higher.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

According to the new data from the Department of Agriculture, about 17.2 million households last year had trouble putting food on the table — what it calls "food insecure." And more than a third of those households had members who went hungry at some point during the year because they couldn't afford enough to eat.

Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon says those numbers dropped slightly from 2009 and could have been a lot worse.

"And I think the principal reason for that is the impact of these nutrition programs across the country — the food stamp, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; programs for women, infants and children; some of the school-based programs," Concannon says.

All of those programs have seen an increase in enrollment since the start of the recession. Today, more than 45 million people get food stamps, or SNAP benefits, as they're now called; that's 1 in 7 Americans. Concannon says children are among the main beneficiaries.

"There's no question in my mind that there would be catastrophic levels of people that were facing food insecurity without this," Concannon says.

Still, children in 386,000 households went hungry at some time during 2010. That's a big concern for Bill Shore, head of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that wants to end childhood hunger by the year 2015.

"These numbers reflect the fact that we've been stuck at a very high level of hunger and food insecurity for going on three years now, and so that takes a real toll on those who are most vulnerable, which tend to be our children," Shore says.

SNAP On The Hill

Shore notes that many families eligible for food aid don't get it because they haven't applied. At the same time, some of these programs face potential budget cuts as lawmakers on Capitol Hill try to reduce the deficit. Some Republicans say food assistance programs are inefficient, and they've proposed turning SNAP into a block grant to be run by states.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) told anti-poverty activists this summer that he's concerned about reports he's heard that SNAP is rife with fraud, and he says some changes are needed.

"Help us figure out how to reform these programs so that they can grow at more sustainable rates, and so that they really work. Help us figure out how to make sure that these things are actually getting assistance to the people who need them," Ryan said.

Concannon says those reports aren't true — that food stamp fraud is down substantially, and the agency is doing what it can to clamp down on any illegal sales. He hopes the new hunger figures will make the case that people need food aid now more than ever, as the economy continues to limp along.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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