It's rare to get good news when it comes to hunger. But the government says there was a big drop last year in the number of people in the country struggling to get enough to eat, especially children.
Overall, 15.8 million U.S. households, or 12.7 percent, experienced what the government calls "food insecurity" at some point during 2015. That's compared to about 17.4 million households — or 14 percent — in 2014, according to a new report by the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
When a family is "food insecure," that means they have a difficult time getting enough to eat, or the right kinds of food to eat, because they lack money or other resources.
The percentage of families that faced actual hunger — or "very low food security" — also declined. In 2015, at least some members of about 6.3 million households missed meals or experienced hunger. In 2014, about 6.9 million households had very low food security.
Most of the time, these families shield children from hunger. The adults will go without meals so the kids can eat. Still, the government says there were about 274,000 households in 2015 in which children went hungry at some point during the year. As bad as that was, it was the lowest level since before the Great Recession and a big decline from 2014 — when 422,000 families reported that their children went hungry at some point.
"These numbers are great," says Duke Storen, senior director at the No Kid Hungry campaign, a national nonprofit effort to reduce childhood hunger. Storen says he wasn't surprised by the decline because the economy has been improving, but he thinks there are other reasons as well.
"We're seeing more children participating in the programs that are available to them, like school breakfast," he says.
Indeed, the Agriculture Department credits food aid, such as free or reduced-price school meals and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), for keeping more people from going hungry. About 59 percent of food-insecure families said they received some government food assistance in the month before they were surveyed last year.
Overall, the government found that hunger and food insecurity declined in just about every category — in black families and Hispanic families, in families with children and in those without. Even so, those on the front lines say they're seeing some pockets of growing need.
"You know, we're not stepping back and saying we don't need as much food because, honestly, I think that our numbers sometimes fluctuate. And I think when we average them together for the year, we'll see a steady number of individuals that we're serving," says Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee.
Chafin thinks one reason that demand is growing for some of her group's programs is that unemployment in her rural area has recently gone up.
Still, anti-hunger advocates are encouraged that the new numbers show the biggest one-year improvement in reducing food insecurity since the Great Recession.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's rare to get good news when it comes to hunger, but the Agriculture Department says last year there was a big drop in the number of hungry people in the U.S. And that drop was dramatic among children. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The numbers are still fairly high. Children in about 274,000 households were hungry at some point last year according to the USDA. Those children either had inadequate food, missed meals or went all day without eating because their families didn't have enough money. But as bad as that was, hunger was less widespread last year than it was the year before and at its lowest level since before the Great Recession.
DUKE STOREN: These numbers are great.
FESSLER: Duke Storen is senior director of the No Kid Hungry campaign, a national non-profit effort to reduce childhood hunger. Storen says he wasn't completely surprised because the economy has been getting better, but he thinks there are other reasons for the decline in hunger.
STOREN: We're seeing more children participating in the programs that are available to them, like school breakfast.
FESSLER: And in fact the Agriculture Department credits food aid such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for keeping more people from going hungry. And the government says hunger declined last year across the board in black families, in Hispanic families, in families with children and in those without. Even so, almost 16 million households say they struggled to get enough food to eat at some point during the year. Rhonda Chafin runs Second Harvest Food Bank of northeast Tennessee.
RHONDA CHAFIN: You know, we're not stepping back and saying we don't need as much food because honestly I think that, you know, our numbers sometimes fluctuate. And I think when we average them together for the year, we'll see a steady number of individuals that we're serving.
FESSLER: She thinks one reason is that unemployment in her rural area has recently gone up. Still, anti-hunger advocates are encouraged that the numbers overall showed the biggest improvement in eight years. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.