It's rare to get good news when it comes to hunger. But the government says there was a big drop last year in the number of people in the country struggling to get enough to eat, especially children.
Overall, 15.8 million U.S. households, or 12.7 percent, experienced what the government calls "food insecurity" at some point during 2015. That's compared to about 17.4 million households — or 14 percent — in 2014, according to a new report by the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
When a family is "food insecure," that means they have a difficult time getting enough to eat, or the right kinds of food to eat, because they lack money or other resources.
The percentage of families that faced actual hunger — or "very low food security" — also declined. In 2015, at least some members of about 6.3 million households missed meals or experienced hunger. In 2014, about 6.9 million households had very low food security.
Most of the time, these families shield children from hunger. The adults will go without meals so the kids can eat. Still, the government says there were about 274,000 households in 2015 in which children went hungry at some point during the year. As bad as that was, it was the lowest level since before the Great Recession and a big decline from 2014 — when 422,000 families reported that their children went hungry at some point.
"These numbers are great," says Duke Storen, senior director at the No Kid Hungry campaign, a national nonprofit effort to reduce childhood hunger. Storen says he wasn't surprised by the decline because the economy has been improving, but he thinks there are other reasons as well.
"We're seeing more children participating in the programs that are available to them, like school breakfast," he says.
Indeed, the Agriculture Department credits food aid, such as free or reduced-price school meals and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), for keeping more people from going hungry. About 59 percent of food-insecure families said they received some government food assistance in the month before they were surveyed last year.
Overall, the government found that hunger and food insecurity declined in just about every category — in black families and Hispanic families, in families with children and in those without. Even so, those on the front lines say they're seeing some pockets of growing need.
"You know, we're not stepping back and saying we don't need as much food because, honestly, I think that our numbers sometimes fluctuate. And I think when we average them together for the year, we'll see a steady number of individuals that we're serving," says Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee.
Chafin thinks one reason that demand is growing for some of her group's programs is that unemployment in her rural area has recently gone up.
Still, anti-hunger advocates are encouraged that the new numbers show the biggest one-year improvement in reducing food insecurity since the Great Recession.
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