Newly released data from the United States Department of Agriculture shows the number of households struggling to afford food in New York State continues to rise.
Between 2009 and 2011, 13.3 percent of households were considered "food insecure," a 2 percent increase over the prior 3-year period and a nearly 4 percent increase compared to 10 years ago. Nationally, the food insecurity rate is 14.9 percent.
The USDA data is based on surveys that ask respondents a series of 18 questions including whether they've ever run out of food before getting money to buy more and whether they've had to forgo eating balanced meals because they couldn't afford them.
Depending on how they answer, households are also categorized into different levels of food insecurity. In New York State, 5.1 percent of households were considered to have "very low food insecurity," which means someone in the household likely skipped meals and went hungry at different points throughout the year.
"This is something we have seen at the ground level," said Triada Stampas, senior director of Government Affairs at the Food Bank for New York City. "Food pantries and soup kitchens have been struggling with high levels of demand, unprecedented need for a really long time."
Stampas said a reduction in discretionary funding from the USDA this past fiscal year amounted to a loss of 11 million meals making it harder for soup kitchens and food pantries to deal with the demand. "We had a very large food pantry in Bed-Stuy just shut its doors for a whole week this August because there just wasn't any food to distribute," said Stampas.
She added the numbers are a testament to the severity of the recession that ended in December 2008.
The rise in food insecurity comes despite a rise in the number of people receiving food stamps. In New York City there were more than 1.8 million food stamp recipients as of July — the largest number of people in 10 years.
Advocates point out that households often run out of food stamps early, leaving them to rely on food pantries and soup kitchens to fill the gap.
Soup kitchens and food pantries are also bracing for potential cuts to food stamps that are currently part of two separate federal farm bills. Republicans have argued that food stamp usage has gotten out of control and needs to be scaled back.
According to Stampas, the current Farm Bill expires at the end of the month, and will likely not be reauthorized until after the November presidential elections.
"There is a lot at stake," she said.