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USDA: Hunger rises in U.S.

America is hungry and getting hungrier, with 49 million people - 17 million of them children - last year unable to consistently get enough food to eat, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

America is hungry and getting hungrier, with 49 million people - 17 million of them children - last year unable to consistently get enough food to eat, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

These figures represent 14.6 percent of all households, a 3.5-percentage-point jump over 2007, and they are the largest recorded since the agency began measuring hunger in 1995.

Of those 49 million, 12 million adults and 5.2 million children reported experiencing the country's most severe hunger, possibly going days without eating. Among the children, nearly half a million in the developmentally critical years under age 6 were going hungry. That's three times the number in 2006.

The study documented both "low food security," which describes people unable to consistently get enough to eat, and "very low food security," in which people reported being hungry various times over the year but were unable to eat because there wasn't enough money for food.

The South reported the highest number of households in both categories, at 15.9 percent, followed by the West at 14.5 percent, the Midwest at 14 percent, and the Northeast at 12.8 percent.

Experts attributed the harsh statistics to the recent recession and to an American poverty that has persisted despite economic growth earlier in the decade.

In a statement yesterday, President Obama called the report "unsettling," adding: "Our children's ability to grow, learn, and meet their full potential - and therefore our future competitiveness as a nation - depends on regular access to healthy meals."

Referring to the increasing numbers of children who suffered the most from hunger, Philadelphia hunger expert Mariana Chilton, a Drexel University public-health professor, said: "This is a catastrophe. This is not a blip. This recession will be in the bodies of our children."

The report confirmed difficulties that antihunger experts already knew - and then went beyond them, according to Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit in Washington working to eradicate hunger.

"This report was worse even than the expectation," he said.

Weill explained that the economic growth of the early 2000s "simply wasn't getting to people in the lower third of the economy."

When the recession hit, it accelerated the pain.

"What you really had was a lot of poor people in the last decade getting closer to the cliff, and now we see the recession has just pushed them off," Weill said.

Carey Morgan, who runs the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said that the continuing poverty that the report points to "speaks to more than a recession, especially in Philadelphia."

The recession, she said, "is a problem of Greater Philadelphia. In Philadelphia itself, the problem is poverty."

She added, "They call hunger America's dirty little secret. Well, it's not little. It's the dirty, big, white elephant in the room. But people don't like to think Americans are going hungry. And if it doesn't affect them, there's no urgency to do something about it."

The problems of hunger outlined in the report are so huge they can only be solved by government programs, antihunger experts agree.

To help battle hunger, Obama said yesterday, "the first task is to restore job growth, which will help relieve the economic pressures that make it difficult for parents to put a square meal on the table each day."

Jonathan Stein, a poverty expert with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, criticized the president for thus far not doing enough to fulfill his campaign promise to end childhood hunger by 2015.

"There's no real legislation from him to accomplish that," Stein said. "We hope today's report will give Obama impetus to end childhood hunger, as he's promised."

Solving the hunger problems laid out in the report "is not rocket science," Weill said.

After economic growth, as Obama suggested, Weill said, the country needs more money for food stamps, continued earned-income tax credits for the poor, and a higher minimum wage.

The report highlighted hunger among the working poor, said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the area.

Indeed, the report showed that 42 percent of households that came up short on food are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level. A family of four at 130 percent of poverty makes around $29,000 annually; at 185 percent, it's more than $40,000 annually.

"No one expects this," noted Kathy Fisher, family-economics expert with Public Citizens for Children and Youth in Philadelphia.

Clark said, "We are certainly not able to meet this increased need" as more and more working-poor people show up at food pantries for dwindling supplies.

Households reporting the most serious problems getting enough food were those with income below the poverty line (42.2 percent); households with children headed by single women (37.2 percent); black households (25.7 percent); and Hispanic households (26.9 percent).

Married couples with children reported the lowest rate of hunger-related problems, at 4.1 percent.

The USDA report is based on data collected in a supplement to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, conducted in December 2008. About 44,000 households completed the nationally representative food-security survey.

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