Fewer go hungry, but 'this is no time to celebrate'

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Story highlights

  • Fewer households in the United States are "food insecure," a new report shows
  • However, many families are still struggling to put on the food table

(CNN)The United States has seen some improvement in how many households are going hungry, but there are still several struggling to put food on the table.

The number of children and adults nationwide who are food insecure -- meaning they don't have consistent access to enough food for a healthy diet -- has declined to 12.7% in 2015 from 14% in 2014. But some 15.8 million households are still food insecure, according to a report released on Wednesday from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
    The report included data from an annual survey of 39,948 households nationwide. The survey involved questions about food security, such as being able to afford balanced meals, skipping meals because of having too little money, or feeling hungry because of not having access to food.
    The survey results not only revealed that food insecurity is on the decline, but also showed that the problem is still more prevalent than it was in 2007. Then, it was at 11.1%, right before the Great Recession officially began.
    The percentage of households that face hunger described as "very low food security" decreased from 5.6% in 2014 to 5% in 2015, which is 6.3 million households, according to the report.
    Often, children are fed first at home, or have access to food at school, but according to the new report, both children and adults experienced hunger in 0.7% -- or 274,000 -- of households. That's a decrease from 1.1% in 2014.
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    The report showed the lowest figures on record for food insecurity among children, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a written statement.
    Overall, "7.9 million fewer people were struggling to provide adequate food for themselves or household members than when President Obama took office in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression," Vilsack said in the statement. "The figures released today also remind us that our work to fight for access to healthy food for our nation's most vulnerable families and individuals is far from over."

    Who struggles most

    Among those who are the most food insecure are African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, single-parent households and households in rural communities, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, who studies food insecurity, but was not involved in the new report.
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    "We really need to talk about the fact that a lot of people who grow our food, in rural areas, can't afford an adequate diet. Some of the top agriculture-producing areas in the country have the highest food insecurity," Waxman said.
    "The level of improvement is great, but what's a little discouraging are the groups traditionally most at risk are still most at risk," she added. "A lot of the vulnerable people are still vulnerable, so the people where we're seeing improvement are the best positioned: people who are white, people who have recent work history, people in geographic areas that have had more [economic] rebound."
    Additionally, teenagers are greatly impacted by food insecurity, Waxman said.
    "Teenagers that we're seeing in this new report are often intimately involved in helping their parents cope with financial stress and taking on the roles of adults, they'll skip meals to protect a younger brother or sister, and sometimes engage in risky behavior in order to bring food into the household," she said.
    "I think the teen years are also a critical developmental period and we need more conversation about what that means. That's the immediate future work force."
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    The new report comes almost a year after Mariana Chilton testified in front of a Congressional committee, as the co-chair of the National Commission on Hunger, about the public health implications of food insecurity and how more action to battle hunger is needed.
    "The report is what was expected because of minor improvements in employment rates and the economy starting to bounce back. So we expected to see decreases in food insecurity and hunger. But this is no time to celebrate," said Chilton, a professor in Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health.
    "The report showed a 'statistically significant' difference, but it's not a significant improvement in the overall health and well-being of the population," he said. "It's a tiny percentage -- a small change for families actually experiencing hunger. The number of people reporting food insecurity is still quite high."