A Look at Food Insecurity in the United States

Amanda Luzzader

Food insecurity, its prevalence, and some possible solutions

According to nonprofit hunger-relief organization U.S. Hunger, food insecurity affects around 1 in 10 households in the United States at any given time. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Economic Research Service (ERS), 6.1 million children, or about 8.4 percent of all children in the United States, are affected by food insecurity. In this article, we’ll discuss food insecurity, its prevalence, and some possible solutions.

Food insecurity defined

The official way hunger is discussed in the United States changed somewhat in 2006, when the USDA introduced new terminology and definitions for referring to food insecurity. Rather than limiting the classification to only “food security” or “food insecurity” a range of food security with four levels is now used. The USDA’s scale and its definitions are outlined below.

Food security

High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.

Marginal food security (old label=Food security): one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.

Food insecurity

Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.

Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

How widespread is food insecurity in the United States?

The ERS reports that the problem reached a high point in 2008, when 14.6 percent of U.S. households with children (about 17 million households) were shown to struggle with food insecurity. After that, food insecurity went into an 11-year decline and in 2019 hit a new low point of 13.6 percent of households with children. That number ticked up to 14.8 percent in 2020, a change largely attributed to financial challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The food insecurity problem then improved slightly in 2021 by inching back down to 13.5 percent. When all households (those with and without children) are considered, food-insecurity numbers are lower—for example, in 2021, just 10.2 percent of all households experienced some level of food insecurity.

What are the effects of food insecurity?

It should come as no surprise that hunger and food insecurity are linked to health problems. A 2017 study by the USDA examined the links between food insecurity and chronic diseases. 

Food insecurity was found to be associated with higher probabilities of many chronic diseases, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, hepatitis, stroke, cancer,

asthma, diabetes, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (also known as COPD), and kidney disease. The USDA’s report linked food insecurity to greater incidence of disease in general and to more-negative self-assessments of overall health. The USDA report further states: “Moreover, differences between adults in households with marginal, low, and very low food security are very often statistically significant, which suggests that looking at the entire range of food security is important for understanding chronic illness and potential economic hardship. Indeed, food security status is more strongly predictive of chronic illness in some cases even than income.”

What causes food insecurity?

It might go without saying that poverty and low income are primary causes of food insecurity, but according to the nonprofit hunger-relief organization Feeding America, the causes are more complex than a mere shortage of money and that many of these causes are interconnected. For instance, food insecurity may result in health problems for a struggling parent, who is consequently less able to earn money for food, which then exacerbates the family’s existing food insecurity. Feeding America cites the following reasons as contributors to food insecurity:

-Poverty, unemployment, and low income

-Lack of affordable housing

-Chronic health conditions and lack of access to healthcare

-Systemic racism and racial discrimination

How is food insecurity addressed in the United States?

As shown in this article, the USDA monitors food insecurity in the United States. This is achieved by an annual survey in which all 50 states are involved. This data collection informs the USDA’s 15 national food and nutrition programs, which include the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), various emergency food assistance programs, and many others. The best-known and most widely used of these programs is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, which provides assistance to qualifying individuals in the form of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) debit cards, which can be used to purchase food.

Food banks and food pantries, usually operated by nonprofit organizations such as Feeding America, are another solution to food insecurity. According to a 2014 study conducted by Feeding America, as many as one in seven people in the United States relied on some form of food bank. One of the largest hunger-relief nonprofit organizations in the United States, Feeding America was founded in 1979 when grassroots activist John van Hengel opened what is said to be the nation’s first food bank, located in Phoenix, Arizona. The organization now provides food and meals to more than 46 million people annually through a network of thousands of food banks, food pantries, and meal programs. 












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