Despite a world-altering pandemic, the number of American households struggling with hunger remained nearly constant last year, buoyed by significant federal safety net programs, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

However, food assistance programs may not have reached populations equally, according to the report, as food insecurity during the pandemic improved for some while worsening for others. Households with children were twice as likely to experience food insecurity as households without children, according to the report.

Black Americans were 3.2 times more likely than White Americans to be food insecure, and Hispanic Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be food insecure than Whites. Households in Southern states also experienced more hunger than those in northern states.

Hunger groups point out that the report suggests that food insecurity continues to plague parts of the country, while also showing that safety net programs delivered during the crisis.

“While tens of millions of Americans suffered mightily from food hardship in 2020 — and are still suffering mightily — the nation avoided mass starvation mostly because the federal government stepped in to dramatically increase food and cash aid,” said Joel Berg, chief executive of Hunger Free America, a national advocacy organization. “This safety net was a giant food life preserver.”

Despite the better-than-expected report on food insecurity during the pandemic, some 60 million Americans received food assistance from a food bank, food pantry or other private charitable food assistance programs in 2020, an increase of 50 percent over the previous year, according to Feeding America, a national organization of 200 food banks.

The majority of food banks in the group’s network continue to report food insecurity that’s significantly higher than in 2019. And food stamps enrollment continues to be way up; it’s currently 2 million more than last year and 6 million more than in 2019.

The surge in food bank use, coupled with expanded federal assistance programs saw some significant successes last year. The USDA survey found that only 3.9 percent of households were experiencing “very low food security,” the most dire category, during the pandemic, below the 4.1 percent that experienced this condition the year before.

This is because “we threw the kitchen sink at hunger during the pandemic,” said Jeremy Everett, executive director, Baylor University’s Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. “I’m shocked that we didn’t see a steeper increase [in hunger]. I think it shows the remarkable resilience of organizations like Feeding America, World Central Kitchen and the school systems.”

Everett points out that many of the enhanced programs and pandemic-related flexibilities are set to expire. Enhanced unemployment benefits expired for many Americans this week; the federal eviction moratorium has also ended.

A benefit that brought all SNAP food assistance recipients up to the maximum allowable benefit will stop at the end of this month, and an increased benefit allowing access to fresh fruit, cheese and vegetables for low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and young children is also poised to expire at the end of September.

Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating poverty-related hunger and undernutrition, calls the end of these programs a “hunger cliff.”

She points to the USDA report’s hunger disparity by race, as well as the extremely high rate of food insecurity in households with children headed by single mothers, as evidence of work yet to be done. And while the number of American households experiencing food insecurity stayed fairly constant, the number of food-insecure individuals in those households increased by 3 million, suggesting that lower-income Americans had to bunk up with relatives or others last year.

“The takeaway is there are far too many hungry people in America,” Henchy said, “1 in 10 households.”

The data is the result of an annual food security survey conducted in December among 34,000 households that comprise a representative sample of the U.S. civilian population of about 130 million households, said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, a social science analyst at the USDA’s Economic Research Service and one of the authors of the report. This is the first complete federal data set to formally document the full extent of hunger and food hardship during the first year of the pandemic.

Coleman-Jensen said the study authors found higher food insecurity among those who reported being unable to work, find work or telework during the pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey has been separately looking at how many Americans don’t have enough food over week-long periods. Those studies have found the number of Americans facing food hardship declined when the federal government increased food and cash assistance to struggling families by significant amounts at various times in the past year and a half.