For those on the front lines of fighting hunger in America, the past half-decade has been like running on empty. The Great Recession that began in 2007 left millions of families struggling with tough choices, like whether to pay for housing or dinner.
But the latest Gallup poll on food insecurity in America offers a hint of hope: The percentage of Americans who say they did not have enough money to buy food for themselves or their families in the last 12 months dropped to its lowest level since 2008 – 17.2 percent, down from 18.9 percent in 2013, the poll found.
"I absolutely would describe it as a glimmer of hope," says Elaine Waxman, vice president of research and nutrition at Feeding America, a network of U.S. food banks.
Waxman oversaw the release this summer of Hunger in America 2014, the largest study of charitable food assistance in the country. That survey, which was conducted in 2013, found that more than 1 in 7 Americans used a food pantry last year — including many military families.
The new Gallup poll picks up where Hunger in America left off, polling people from January to October of this year. And the message, says Waxman, is that maybe things are finally starting to get back on track.
"I think it's some good news that we are beginning to see a little movement," she says, "because we've been stuck at earlier recession levels for so long."
The Gallup survey numbers on food insecurity are higher than those released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September, which found that 14.3 percent of American households weren't getting enough to eat. Why the difference? Gallup asks a single question, while USDA asks a battery of questions that tend to weed out those families who are straddling the line between struggling and getting by — barely.
And this is the income group that seems to be benefiting, finally, from the economic recovery. According to Gallup, the biggest drop in food insecurity this year was experienced by households earning between $24,000 and $48,000 a year.
One thing that may be working in these families' favor is the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, suggests James Ziliak, founding director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. "This is the group that, historically, made too much for Medicaid," he notes. But if these families are getting health care under Obamacare, he says, "it's freeing up money to buy food, whereas before they had to use that to buy prescription medicine."
That's just Ziliak's hunch — he has no hard data to back it up yet, he says — but it jibes with the latest Hunger in America report, which found that 66 percent of food bank users had had to choose between paying for food and health care in the previous 12 months. Obamacare didn't really kick in until this year.
While the Gallup findings provide some reason from optimism, it's hardly time to celebrate.
According to official USDA numbers, the percentage of families who said they were struggling to get enough to eat in 2013 — 14.3 percent — remains stubbornly high compared with pre-recessionary levels, when about 11 percent of households reported food insecurity.
In other words, the need is still very much there.
"Anecdotally, we're hearing from some food banks that some people are coming less frequently," says Waxman. But "they're still coming."