For all the talk of a recovery in the US economy, the rebounding financial markets (with Wall Street at 13-month highs overnight), gold at record highs, and a rise in October retail sales, a grim reality has been outlined in Washington for all the world to see.

America can’t feed all its 303 million people, with one in seven going short at some stage in a week.

The country’s agricultural department (the full study is available here) reckons 49 million Americans struggle to get enough to eat, the highest reading in an annual survey in the 14 years it has been conducted.

And the figure probably understates the problem because the survey was done at the end of 2008 when unemployment was starting to accelerate and was a long way from the current reading of 10.2% (about 15.7 million) out of work.

America’s underemployment rate is a nasty 17.5%, or more than 25 million people.

About  36 million people are estimated to be on food stamps, and yet there looks like there’s another 13 million or more who are unable to get enough food to eat and who are beyond government help.

Details of the survey were in the USDA’s annual report was based on a survey conducted in December 2008, soon after financial markets slumped.

The report said that about 14.6% of US households, equal to 49.1 million people, “had difficulty obtaining food for all their members due to a lack of resources” during 2008, up 3.5 percentage points from 2007 when 11.1% of households were classified as food insecure.

About 5.7% of households, or 17.3 million people, had “very low food security,” meaning some members of the household had to eat less. Typically, food runs short in those households for a few days in seven or eight months of the year, USDA said.

During a briefing last week, a senior Wal-Mart executive said his company had noticed people lining up at some of its stores at midnight on the night before federal food aid or state unemployment benefits were due to be paid into their bank accounts. He said these people entered the stores soon after midnight and started buying food and other goods in bulk when they had confirmed the money was in their accounts.

The executive said that anecdotally, the company had discovered that many of its poorer customers went without meals in the days approaching the payment of benefits to make their meagre resources last.

The department said this year’s report also revealed “that one third of food-insecure households had very low food security (food intake of some household members was reduced and their eating patterns disrupted at times during the year). This is 5.7% of all US households or about 6.7 million. This is up from 4.7 million households (4.1%) in 2007, and the highest level observed since nationally representative food security surveys were initiated in 1995.

“Even when resources are inadequate to provide food for the entire family, children are usually shielded from the disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake that characterise very low food security. However, children as well as adults experienced instances of very low food security in 506,000 households (1.3% of households with children) in 2008, up from 323,000 households (0.8% of households with children) in 2007.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey