Food insecurity occurs when individuals or families do not have consistent access to adequate food due to lack of money and other resources at times during the year. Most families who are food insecure live in poverty. *
Maya is a 32-year-old single mother of two children ages 8 and 6 years. Maya and her children live with her elderly mother in a three-bedroom house. Maya has a part-time job working as a waitress in a local restaurant where she earns less than minimum wage because she also gets tips. Because she is part time, she receives no benefits (e.g., healthcare, paid sick leave, and paid vacation leave). She does get one free meal when she is working at the restaurant. She relies on her mother to provide care and supervision for her children when she is at work in the evening and on weekends. Her mother receives a monthly Social Security benefit as her only source of income. After the rent and utilities are paid, there is little money left for food. Maya's employer will sometimes give her leftover food at the end of the day to take home to her family, but that is not consistent. Maya relies on the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the After School Snacks and Suppers Program for most of her children's meals. Maya and her family can be considered food insecure.
Food security is based on three essentials: food availability, food access, and food use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as occurring when “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” That is, at one or more times throughout the year, the family does not have enough money or other resources to access and obtain food.
There are two levels of food insecurity: low food security and very low food security. In low food security households, the family is able to obtain enough food to avoid a significant disruption in their eating patterns or reduction in their food intake. In very low food security households, one or more family members are experiencing disruption in their eating patterns and reduction in food intake because they do not have enough money or resources for food. Strategies used to obtain food in both low food security and very low food security households, as outlined by the USDA, include “eating less varied diets, participating in Federal food assistance programs, or getting emergency food from community food pantries.”
The USDA reported that in 2014, 14 percent of households, or 48.1 million people, in the United States experienced food insecurity at some point during the year. Of these households, 8.4 percent experienced low food security and 5.6 percent experienced very low food security. In some households, only adults were food insecure because adult family members will often eat less in order to give their children more. However, 1.2 percent of children in the United States (914,000) lived in households in which one or more children experienced food insecurity.
According to the 2014 report, households with children had a significantly higher rate of food insecurity than households without children. Food insecure households were more likely to be headed by a single person and more likely to be located outside metropolitan areas. Black non-Hispanic and Hispanic households were more likely to be food insecure.
Major contributors to food insecurity are unemployment, high housing costs, and low wages and poverty. Most families who are food insecure have an annual income of less than 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold, which in 2014 was $24,008 for a family of four. A lack of access to federal or local support programs can also contribute to food insecurity.
There are several federal government programs to assist those with food insecurity. They include the following:
NOTE: The food security measure is based on data collected annually in the Food Security Supplement to the CPS. The criteria for classifying households as food insecure reflect a consensus judgment of an expert working group on food security measurement. For detailed explanations, see Bickel, G., Nord, M., Price, C., Hamilton, W., and Cook, J., revised 2000, Guide to measuring household food security, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service; and Coleman-Jensen, A., Gregory, C., and Singh, A., 2014, Household food security in the United States in 2013 (ERR-173), U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
In addition, many communities have food banks that make food available to low-income families. Public and private agencies, faith community organizations, and nonprofit community organizations participate in many of these programs to prevent hunger and provide nutritious food.
See also Malnutrition
Gundersen, Craig. “Food Insecurity Is an Ongoing National Concern.” Advances in Nutrition 4 (2013): 36–41. Available online at http://advances.nutrition.org/content/4/1/36.full (accessed March 29, 2016).
Thomas, Courtney I. P. Voices of Hunger: Food Insecurity in the United States. Champaign, IL: Common Ground Publishing, 2014.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. “Food Security in the U.S.: Key Statistics and Graphics.” http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#foodsecure (accessed March 29, 2016).
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. http://www.fns.usda.gov (accessed March 29, 2016).
World Health Organization. “Food Security.” http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/ (accessed March 29, 2016).
Feeding America. 35 East Wacker Drive, Suite 2000, Chicago, IL 60601. Toll-free: 800.771.2303. Website: http://www.feedingamerica.org (accessed March 29, 2016).
U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20250. Telephone: 202-720-2791. Website: www.usda.gov (accessed March 29, 2016).
* poverty the state of being extremely poor, that is, having little or no money, material goods, or means of support. To participate in supplemental assistance programs, the U.S. federal and state governments define poverty based on total household income. This amount is adjusted yearly.