With world leaders meeting in Rome to discuss ways to tackle global hunger, a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds more Americans than ever before are experiencing food insecurity.
The USDA report estimates that 49 million Americans had trouble getting enough to eat in 2008. That's the largest figure since the annual survey of food security began in 1995. It represents nearly one in seven U.S. households, and it's a sharp increase from 2007, before the global recession began, when about one in 10 households were food-insecure.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the report as a wake-up call.
"I think this report suggests that it is time for America to get very serious about food security and hunger, about nutrition, and about food safety," said Secretary Vilsack.
The figures come from a representative sample of about 44,000 U.S. households. Participants were asked questions about their access to adequate food. Of those who had difficulty affording enough food, one-third of them - or nearly 7 million households - had to cut back on meals because of it. Many of the others turned to federal programs or local food banks to make up the difference.
But the increased demand is putting strain on food banks across the country. For example, Shamia Holloway is a spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves more than 700 organizations around Washington, DC. Holloway says demand is up by 30 to 100 percent.
"They're seeing longer lines," said Shamia Holloway. "They're not turning people away, but they are giving away fewer food items to accommodate the increase in requests for food."
The survey found African Americans, Latinos, and single-parent families were most likely to have trouble getting enough food. But Holloway and others say one of the most striking trends is the change in who is seeking help.
"First-time visitors are coming seeking food assistance," she said. "Middle-class individuals who would never think they would have to come the food bank are now coming to us for food. And I've even heard of a case of a former donor who used to support the food bank is now coming to us for food assistance."
David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World, says while the recession is driving the increase in hunger in the United States, the problem is growing worldwide.
"We've had a huge setback in the world's progress against hunger and poverty, driven by high food prices in developing countries, also by the global recession," said David Beckmann. "So, it's a global event."
And things may get worse before they get better. U.S. unemployment has now topped 10 percent, the highest level in two decades, notes Paula Thornton Greear with the hunger-relief charity Feeding America.
"The numbers from the USDA report were extremely alarming," said Paula Thornton Greear. "But the numbers reflect 2008. So, as we know, we've been continuing as a country to go through this recession through 2009. So, we are even more alarmed by the fact that, once we look back at the 2009 numbers, they may be even higher."
Even with the economy turning around, experts say record levels of food insecurity in the United States will likely continue until unemployment begins to decline.