WASHINGTON -- Some 17.6 million U.S. households had trouble feeding their family members at times last year as "food insecurity" remained at near-record levels for the fifth straight year, according to a government report released Wednesday.
More than one-third of those households -- 7 million -- suffered from "very low food security," in which usual eating patterns were disrupted and consumption was reduced because of a lack of money and access to food.
In all, 49 million Americans didn't know where their next meals would come from at some point in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
While the numbers show a slight improvement over 2011, the differences weren't statistically significant, the report found. The level of food hardship in the U.S. remained high last year in the aftermath of the recession, in which more than 8 million Americans lost their jobs.
"The fact that 49 million people in this country continue to struggle to put food on the table is unconscionable," said the Rev. David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World, a Washington-based anti-hunger organization.
Access to food was most problematic among the poor, female-headed families, families with children, and blacks and Hispanics, according to the annual USDA report, "Household Food Security in the United States in 2012."
Food insecurity affected 1 in 5 U.S. households with children, more than one-third of households with children headed by single women and nearly a quarter of households with children headed by single men, the report found.
Nearly 1 million children -- about 1.3 percent of the nation's youngsters -- lived in households with very low food security.
The report showed that 42 percent of food-insecure households -- about 7.4 million -- received assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
Although the economy is improving, enrollment in the SNAP program continues to hover at the near-record levels reached during the recent recession. As of May, 47.6 million people in 23 million households were receiving food stamps. That's roughly 1 in 7 Americans.
Congressional Republicans are pushing to cut the SNAP program by $40 billion as part of a new farm bill. They say that SNAP, the nation's largest anti-hunger program, is too expensive, at roughly $78 billion a year. Republicans also want to require food stamp applicants to undergo drug tests.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday's report underscored the importance of the SNAP program in keeping food hardship from rising.
"As the recovery continues and families turn to USDA nutrition programs for help to put good food on the table, this is not the time for cuts to the SNAP program that would disqualify millions of Americans and threaten a rise in food insecurity," Vilsack said in a statement.