Even during the period of economic growth and low unemployment that preceded the recent recession, a growing number of Americans found it harder to pay for food, according to a report from USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Food security, meaning consistent access by all people to adequate food for active, healthy living, is closely linked with the amount households spend for food. Annual ERS reports on household food security from 2000 to 2007 indicate that median food spending by U.S. households grew more slowly than food prices over that period, which means that food spending by middle- and low-income households actually declined after adjusting for inflation. This report provides more detailed information on the characteristics of the decline in inflation-adjusted food spending and examines associated changes in the food security of U.S. households.

From 2000 to 2007, median spending on food by U.S. households declined by 12 percent relative to the rising cost of USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, and by 6 percent relative to the rising Consumer Price Index (CPI) for Food and Beverages. Over the same period, the national prevalence of very low food security increased by about one-third, from 3.1 percent of households in 2000 to 4.1 percent in 2007.

The deterioration in food security was greatest in the second-lowest income quintile, in which the prevalence of very low food security increased by about half. These estimates, based on data from the nationally representative Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement, are corroborated by corresponding declines in food expenditures by middle- and low-income households in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey. The decline was largest in the second-lowest income quintile, in which average CPI-inflation-adjusted spending for food declined by 16 percent. The declines in food spending by middle- and low-income households were accompanied by increases in spending for housing and, in the two lowest income quintiles, by declines in income and total spending.

The full report is available from USDA/ERS.