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How Many Children are Hungry in the United States? A Reader Asks

Hunger Notes

Dear Hunger Notes:

Your web site states that 13 million American children are hungry.  With all the social programs, including WIC, why are there still so many hungry children?  Where are they living?   Are many of them children of illegal immigrants who do not meet requirements for govt. help?  Are they children of drug addicted parents who do not take responsibility for them?  Doesn't Family and Children Services remove children from their homes when they are not taken care of? From what I see in the school system, the govt. is helping children through free breakfast and lunch programs. What more can we do?

I would like some verification on how your statistics are gathered. I am considering reprinting them in our Yearly Resource guide and want to make sure I can back them up if someone questions them.  D.L.

Dear D.L.

Thanks very much for your important questions, which definitely need to be clarified before publication.  Hunger Notes itself did not write the hunger fact sheet that I believe you are referring to:  Bread for the World's domestic hunger fact sheet at http://www.bread.org/hungerbasics/domestic.html

The relevant information there says:

--36.3 million people--including 13 million children--live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten 0households in the United States (11.2 percent). This is an increase of 1.4 million, from 34.9, million in 2002.

--3.5 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. Some people in these households frequently skip meals or eat too little, sometimes going without food for a whole day. 9.6 million people, including 3 million children, live in these homes.

--7.7 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Members of these households have lower quality diets or must resort to seeking emergency food because they cannot always afford the food they need. 26.6 million people, including 10.3 million children, live in these homes.

The second two paragraphs amplify the first. The 36.3 million people live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. 9.6 million people, including 3 million children, experience hunger, when people frequently skip meals or eat too little. The second group, 26.6 million people including 10.3 million children are at risk of hunger, which they deal with by buying cheaper (and less nutritious food) and by relying on public or private food programs.

So three million children live in homes that experience hunger. Two further points  are important:

--First, this is really "experience hunger at some time during the year." A majority of the people who were hungry at some time during the year were hungry in several different months, but only for a few times each month. So that daily statistics for hunger would be smaller.

--Secondly, the number of children that experience hunger would be smaller, as adults usually try to shield children from hunger. The first people to be hungry are usually adults.

Thus, on a typical day in November 2003, for example, between 490,000 and 698,000 households (0.4-0.6 percent of all U.S. households included one or more members who were hungry because the household could not afford enough food. Children are usually shielded from hunger even when resources are inadequate to provide food for the entire family. Nevertheless, hunger among children occurred in 33,000 to 37,000 households (.08 to .09 percent of all U.S. households from children) on a typical day. [This would represent an estimated 100,000 children with three children per family.]   Source: Food Security Research Brief.

HN would suggest the following paragraph from the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service that we believe summarizes things nicely:

Throughout the year in 2003, 88.8 percent of U.S. households were food secure, essentially unchanged from 2002. The remaining 11.2 percent (12.6 million households) were food insecure. These households, at some time during the year, had difficulty providing enough food for all members due to a lack of resources. Within the 11.2 percent, 7.7 percent were food insecure without hunger, and 3.5 percent had one or more household members who were hungry at some time, unchanged from 2002. The prevalence of food insecurity with hunger among children was 0.5 percent of all U.S. households with children, essentially unchanged from 2002. Food Security Research Brief

To summarize, the good news is that 13 million children are not hungry each day, (which I think was the thrust of your question). The bad news is that 13 million children live in families that are threatened with hunger.

In 1995, the U.S. government set a goal of reducing the prevalence for food insecurity from 12 percent to 6 percent by 2010.  With food insecurity at 11.2 percent in 2003, halfway through the period, there is far to go.  

Turning now to your other questions.

“I would like some verification on how your statistics are gathered.”

The statistics are gathered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, based on surveys. This survey is quite impressive.  The USDA food security website is at http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/. It has links to the full current survey and interesting articles on food security in the United States.

“With all the social programs, including WIC, why are there still so many hungry children? … From what I see in the school system, the govt. is helping children through free breakfast and lunch programs.” 

First, of the food insecure, two-thirds are not actually hungry, and in large part this is because they rely on food assistance programs (including WIC, food stamps, the school feeding program and private programs such as church programs) and income support programs.  So these programs have done quite a bit.  Secondly, as discussed above, there are less hungry children than your statement would suggest.

Where are they [hungry children] living?   The full 2003 report http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/fanrr42/, has statistics by state and type of geographical area (e.g. urban).  Also take a look at the U.S. Catholic Conference Poverty Facts.  Many small pages, but about the fifth page and following give summaries of where the most hungry live.

Are many of them children of illegal immigrants who do not meet requirements for govt. help? 

As I remember, not more than 14 percent of the food insecure are non-U.S. citizens, and a significant percentage of the non-citizens are here legally.

Are they children of drug addicted parents who do not take responsibility for them?  Doesn't Family and Children Services remove children from their homes when they are not taken care of?

Children are removed from their homes if neglect is recognized, reported and serious enough.  There are no statistics, to my knowledge, relating food insecurity and use of drugs that would enable national estimates to be made of the percentage of the food insecure who are debilitated by the use of drugs. I would suspect it is a very small percentage, possibly three-five percent, of the food insecure. The major causes of food insecurity are really elsewhere, in the lack of jobs (especially those paying high enough wages to avoid food insecurity),  lack of job skills, and single parent families.

Editor, Hunger Notes

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