The number of U.S. families that struggled to get enough to eat last year was essentially unchanged from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest report on "food security."

The agency says that about 17.5 million families — or 1 in 7 — were food insecure last year. That means that at some point during the year, the household had trouble feeding all of its members. In 2012, the number was 17.6 million.

The number of households experiencing what the government calls "very low food security" — which means people actually miss meals or cut back their intake because they don't have enough money for food — was also essentially unchanged last year at 6.8 million households.

Anti-hunger groups say the fact that so many families are still struggling to put enough food on the table, even as the economy improves, is a sign that more needs to be done to help them out.

"These startling numbers prove there has been no true economic recovery for tens of millions of struggling U.S. families," Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said in a statement. "It is clearer than ever that we need a massive new government jobs program, a significant increase in the minimum wage and a robust increase in the federal nutrition safety net program."

USDA sociologist Alisha Coleman-Jensen, an author of the report, says the numbers have not declined as much as one might expect with a drop in unemployment, because higher food prices and inflation last year offset the benefits of a brighter job market.

She notes that over a two-year period, the drop in the percentage of struggling families was statistically significant — from 14.9 percent in 2011 to 14.3 percent last year.

Still, the level of food insecurity remains much higher than it was before the recession. In 2007, about 11 percent of households struggled to get enough to eat.

Other highlights from the report:

  • One bright spot was a big decline in the number of families with very low food security among children. That means that at least one child in the household was hungry, skipped a meal or didn't eat for an entire day because there wasn't enough money for food. In 2012, the number was 463,000. Last year, it was 360,000.
  • Children in about 3.8 million households did not receive adequate, nutritious food at some point during the year. That's down slightly from 2012.
  • Sixty-two percent of food-insecure families reported that they received some federal food aid, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. In 2012, the percentage was 59 percent. Anti-hunger groups note that the impact of SNAP cuts that went into effect late last year are not reflected in this report.
  • The rate of food insecurity varied greatly depending on the race or ethnicity of the head of the household — 10.6 percent of white households struggled to get enough to eat, compared with 26.1 percent of black households and 23.7 percent of Hispanic households.
  • More than a third of families headed by single women with children were food insecure.
  • Families were more likely to struggle with food if they were living in cities or rural areas, rather than in suburbs.
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