Food insecurity in Connecticut.

Washington – The number of Americans who say they don’t know if they will be able to buy enough healthy food to fight hunger has stabilized, but not in Connecticut, where “food insecurity” has been on the rise.

“We distribute 36 tons of food every business day, and we know that it’s still not enough,” said Nancy Carrington, CEO of Connecticut Food Banks, an organization that stocks the state’s food pantries.

According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture report on hunger, the number of Connecticut households who say they don’t have a consistent, dependable supply of food has grown by nearly 6 percent since 2000 — to 13.4 percent in 2012.

Only a handful of states, including Mississippi, Nevada and Missouri, had steeper hikes.

At 20.9 percent, Mississippi had the highest number of food insecure households, the USDA report said, and North Dakota the lowest,  8.7 percent. Minority households and those headed by women were most likely to be food insecure.

Connecticut’s food insecurity figures were still lower last year than the national average of 14.7 percent. But nationally the number of food insecure households jumped in 2008, the beginning of the recession, then stayed fairly level.

In Connecticut, there has been a consistent upward trend through the recession, the USDA report said.

The report also said that nearly 5 percent of Connecticut households faced “very low food security,” which means that food intake by some household members was reduced, and meals were skipped.

Lucy Nolan, executive director of Hartford-based End Hunger Connecticut!, said there are several reasons Connecticut is out of step with the rest of the nation.

Connecticut is taking longer than most other states to climb out of the recession, Nolan said. 

Food stamp recipients are more likely to live in big cities or very rural areas, but in Connecticut, Nolan said, there has been a growth of the program in the suburbs. “That has to do with jobs,” she said.

“Last year Connecticut was the worst state in child poverty,” she noted, “and the state also has the biggest gap between rich and poor.”. 

The state’s small percentage of very rich people raises its per capita income figure, masking the number of poor in the state, Nolan said.

Another reason for Connecticut’s uptick in the number of food insecure people is that, before it recently overhauled its system, the state’s Department of Social Services faced technological problems and a slowdown in processing applications for the food stamp program. “They were overwhelmed with paper,” Nolan said.

Carrington, of Connecticut Food Banks, said the state’s high unemployment rate of 8.1 percent has led to higher rates of food insecurity. The national unemployment rate is 7.4 percent.

The number of people visiting food banks continues to be high, Carrington said. “It has just not abated. It’s alarming that it just keeps going on,” she said.

Carrington said Connecticut’s high cost of living also may contribute to families’ troubles in procuring food. The USDA report said the typical American household spends about $50 per individual each week for food.

“When times are bad, rent doesn’t change, utilities don’t change, but you can eat less food,” Carrington said.

A report earlier this year by the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources said there’s another reason, besides poverty, that some Connecticut families face hunger.

The scarcity of markets in some parts of the state that offer a variety of food at fair prices plays a role, as does the availability of public assistance programs and public transportation.

Anti-hunger advocates are nervous that food issues may spike this fall because a 13 percent expansion of the food stamp program is slated to end in November. That means that the $145 per month benefit that each individual receives in food stamps in Connecticut would be reduced by $11 a month.

A greater threat, the advocates say, is the possibility that Congress will cut the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, the official name for the food stamp program, even more.

A farm bill in the Senate that would reauthorize the program contains a modest cut. But some Republicans in the House are seeking far greater reductions in the program and are insisting that recipients be employed.

Some lawmakers, including Connecticut’s Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, are pushing back.

“This (USDA) report is further proof that Republican leadership needs to stop the dangerous path it is currently on and ensure our critical anti-hunger programs are adequately funded,” DeLauro said. “Behind the numbers in this report are parents who cannot put dinner on their kitchen table and children who go to school on empty stomachs. This is no way for the wealthiest country in the world to behave.”

Nolan, of End Hunger Connecticut!, is not optimistic that problems like hunger will lessen anytime soon. “If you look at the economic indicators in Connecticut, we’re not doing well in a lot of things,” she said.

Editor’s Note: On Friday, DSS said more than 220,000 households in the state are enrolled in the food stamp program, which is up 8 percent from a year ago. They say this strong enrollment shows the program is an effective weapon against food insecurity.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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