WASHINGTON — Some 17.4 million US households struggled to get enough food to eat last year because money was tight, the US Department of Agriculture said Monday.

In more than a third of those households -- around one in eight US homes -- at least one person did not get enough to eat at some time during the year and normal eating patterns were disrupted.

Hardest hit by hunger were urban households with children headed by single parents and African American and Hispanic households, the USDA said in a report.

While the number of hungry people was deemed too high for the affluent United States, the report found that it had held steady from the previous year, thanks in large part to government-funded food assistance programs.

The number of people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- formerly called food stamps -- rose by about 5.3 million people a month in 2009 compared to the previous year, the report said.

One million more low-income children received free or reduced-price lunches at school, marking a 5.4 percent increase, and over 400,000 more low-income women and children participated in supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children in an average month.

The government also provided an additional 100 million dollars for emergency food assistance to the needy in 2009, which helped to stock the shelves of food pantries and other emergency organizations that distribute food to hungry Americans.

"This report highlights just how critical federal nutrition assistance programs are for American families in need," said USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon.

"We anticipate that food security will improve as the economy improves but in the near-term, without these benefits, many families would face far more severe problems getting the food they need."

Food insecurity in the United States held more or less steady at around 10 percent of households between 2000 and 2007, when the economic downturn officially began.

That year, it spiked to more than 14 percent of households, where it has held steady ever since.