Dan Ryan and his wife make a combined $2,700 a month, but that's still not enough to feed them and their three children.
After the rent -- $1,200 for a three-bedroom apartment in Gloucester, Massachusetts -- and electric, cable and heating bills are paid, the amount left over for groceries, including non-food items like paper towels and laundry detergent, is just $125 a week.
“I often worry we won’t have enough to eat,” said Ryan, 49, who used to make $70,000 a year as a chef in Boston before developing cancer. The cancer caused nerve damage in his right leg that eventually disabled him.
Ryan now receives $1,300 a month in Social Security benefits from the government. His wife, Tammy Walsh-Ryan, works full-time at a local nonprofit.
To make ends meet, the Ryans go to a food pantry every week to pick up free groceries. The shopping bags full of vegetables, bread, milk and eggs help a lot, Ryan said, but many weeks the pantry is low on supplies -- and sometimes shelves are bare.
“Times are tough for everyone, including them,” Ryan said. “It’s never a guarantee you’re gonna get enough to last through the week when you go.” On weeks when the food pantry can’t provide, the Ryan family eats dinners of just pasta and bread.
Ryan told The Huffington Post that his family also qualifies for $16 a month in food stamps, but he said they didn't want to take that money because there were other people who needed it more.
Although the U.S. is said to be in the midst of an economic recovery, the percentage of Americans lacking consistent access to food has been stuck at the same level since 2008, the heart of the Great Recession. Congress hasn't helped matters any by deciding to slash food stamp benefits at just the wrong moment.
As of 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, there were about 49 million Americans who, like the Ryans, were “food insecure,” meaning they have limited access to sufficient amounts of food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Interviews with several food banks around the country suggest things haven't really improved since then.
A new report from the hunger relief charity Feeding America throws the nation’s struggle with hunger into an even starker light. The report, titled "Map the Meal Gap 2014," broke the USDA’s data down county by county, giving a more nuanced picture of food insecurity. The report reveals that there are 16 counties in the U.S. with more than 100,000 “food insecure” children -- a number you might expect to see in a developing country rather than the world’s wealthiest nation.
Though the percentage of Americans without enough nutritious food has stayed level in recent years, food costs are rising steadily for those people: The Feeding America report found that, on average, people struggling to afford food said they needed an extra $15.82 per person per week in 2012, up from $14.35 in 2011.
All but one of a dozen food banks and food pantries around the country contacted by HuffPost on Monday said the number of people they serve has remained at record highs even after the recession officially ended in the summer of 2009.
“The famous quote from John Kennedy is that a rising tide lifts all boats, but there are some people that just aren’t rising,” said Martha Henk, executive director of the East Alabama Food Bank, which distributes groceries to low-income people through its 190 food pantry members.
In 2010, Henk said, the East Alabama Food Bank distributed 3.8 million pounds of food to its member agencies. Last year, that amount rose to 4.5 million pounds. “And there’s more need than we’re even able to reach,” Henk said.
The Open Door food pantry, which the Ryans visit in Gloucester, said it had experienced a 96 percent increase in requests for food assistance since 2008.
Several food pantries contacted by HuffPost cited recent food stamp cuts as a primary reason for the continued high demand. A farm bill passed by Congress in February slashed $8 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The cuts are estimated to reduce benefits for 850,000 households nationwide.
Many conservatives caution against equating food insecurity with hunger. “The two concepts cannot be taken to mean the same thing,” said Heritage Foundation policy analyst Rachel Sheffield, pointing out that the USDA’s numbers for Americans living with “very low food security” (the phrase the agency uses to describe the condition it used to call “food insecurity with hunger”) are much lower than those for mere food insecurity.
“The problem gets made to sound much larger than it is,” Sheffield said.
One reason the numbers of Americans without enough food remained so stubbornly high in 2012 may be the dramatic rise in energy and food prices the previous year. Energy prices rose 6.6 percent in 2011, compared with 0.5 percent in 2012, according to CNN, while food prices rose 4.7 percent in 2011 and only 1.8 percent in 2012.
It’s hard to predict if things will get better this year. There are mixed signals on unemployment and poverty, two of the key drivers of hunger. Unemployment is down from this time last year, but poverty has stayed mostly level over the past six years.
When asked how to fix the problem of so many Americans having uncertain access to food, Map the Meal Gap's lead researcher said more people should be encouraged to sign up for food stamps. "We need to try to remove the stigma that's often associated with participating in SNAP and try to make it easier to enroll," said Craig Gundersen. "In the absence of programs like SNAP, food insecurity would be much worse in the U.S."Look: Feeding America's interactive map shows how many Americans lack consistent access to good food, county by county. Roll over a state for more details. (Story continues below.)