More than one in seven American households struggled to put enough food on the table in 2008, the highest number since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking food security levels in 1995.
That's 14.6 percent of U.S. households, or about 49 million people. The numbers are a significant increase from 2007, when 11.1 percent of U.S. households suffered from what USDA classifies as "food insecurity" not having enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the numbers could be higher in 2009 because of the global economic slowdown.
"This report suggests its time for America to get very serious about food security and hunger," Vilsack told reporters during a conference call.
The USDA said Monday that 5.7 percent of those who struggled for food experienced "very low food security," meaning household members reduced their food intake.
The numbers dovetail with dire economic conditions for many Americans. And they may not take the full measure of America's current struggles with hunger: Vilsack and the report's lead author, Mark Nord with USDA's economic research service, both emphasized that the numbers reflected the situation in 2008 and that the economy's continued troubles in 2009 would likely mean higher numbers next year.
The report also showed an increasing number of children in the United States are suffering food insecurity. In 2008, 16.7 million children were classified as food insecure, 4.3 million more than in 2007.
Hunger advocates said they were not surprised by the numbers, and said the numbers for children, in particular, were lamentable.
"What should really shock us is that almost one in four children in our country lives on the brink of hunger," said David Beckmann, the President of Bread of the World, a hunger advocacy organization.
Vickie Escarra, the president of Feeding America, another hunger advocacy group, said all indications were that numbers in 2009 would be even worse than 2008.
"(T)he escalating unemployment rate and the number of working-poor, lead us to believe that the number of people facing hunger will continue to rise significantly over the coming year," she said. "Research on previous economic recessions indicates that people who fall into the grips of poverty in a time of recession do not recover financially."
Vilsack said that it would take a concerted effort to reduce the number of Americans who face food insecurity and said he hoped that the stark reality of Monday's report would inspire action. He also said it was important to recognize that the numbers could have been much worse without adequately funded food aid programs, such as food stamps.
"There's an opportunity here for the country to make a major commitment to focus on ways we can improve this process and make sure that food is safe and available for everyone," he said.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI decried the steadily worsening tragedy of world hunger on Monday after a global summit rebuffed a U.N. call to commit billions of dollars a year for a new strategy to help poor countries feed themselves.
The meeting at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization did unite nearly 200 countries behind a pledge to increase aid to farmers in poor countries to help the developing world lessen its dependence on foreign food aid.
Only hours after the three-day summit began, some 60 heads of state and dozens of ministers rejected the U.N.'s call to commit $44 billion annually for agricultural development in these nations. The final declaration also omitted a pledge, sought by the United Nations, to eradicate hunger by 2025.
"Hunger is the most cruel and concrete sign of poverty," Benedict told the delegates after the document was approved. "Opulence and waste are no longer acceptable when the tragedy of hunger is assuming ever greater proportions."
The last previous papal appearance at a food summit in Rome came in 1996, when Pope John Paul II delivered a speech.
U.N. officials say roughly 1 billion people one of every six people on the planet don't get enough to eat.