Shocking Numbers Face Food Insecurity in the United States
It’s hard to believe, but a shocking number of households in the U.S. face food insecurity on a daily basis – 42.2 million, to be exact.
But, what exactly does that mean?
- FOOD SECURITY: A household that is “food secure” has access, at all times, to the food it needs for everyone to live a healthy, active lifestyle.
- FOOD INSECURITY: A household does not have this kind of access. This could be due to poverty, lack of access to food vendors, or unavailability of healthy alternatives.
In the U.S., roughly 13% of households (about 15.8 million) are food insecure. And roughly 6.3 million households experience what the USDA would consider “very low food security.” Households with children are especially susceptible, with 17% of households facing some kind of food insecurity.
Children and Families Facing the Impact of Food Insecurity in the United States
But what do these numbers actually mean for our nation and our communities?
Food Insecurity Means Tough Choices for Families
Food insecurity is not just a matter of going hungry. It can mean making tough choices, choices no family should have to make. For example, it can result when a family needs to make trade-offs between food and other basic needs, such as housing, utilities, transportation, medical bills, and so on.
Consider the kinds of “tough choices” that poor and food insecure households have to make on a daily and monthly basis (numbers are from feedingamerica.org):
- 69% of families have to choose between buying food and paying utilities
- 67% of families have to choose between buying food and paying for transportation
- 66% of families have to choose between food and medical care
- 57% of families have to choose between food and housing
- 31% of families have to choose between food and education
- 79% of families purchase unhealthy food, simply because it is inexpensive
Food Insecurity Means Constant Worry About Food
Not having access to the amount and quality of food needed for a healthy lifestyle takes a toll, both physically and psychologically. Having to choose between food and other basic needs means that hunger is a constant stressor in these households.
For example, households that are food secure often do not worry about food much – less than 5.8% of households, in fact. By contrast, households with low food security worry about their next or last meal with alarming frequency. A 2015 USDA poll of food secure and food insecure households revealed when looking at just food insecure families:
- 83.9% bought food for the week, but could not buy enough to last
- 92% worried about their food running out
- 77.3% could not afford to go out and purchase a balanced meal
- 21.5% cut or skipped meals repeatedly over a 3+ month period
- 38.3% felt that they ate less than they should have at their last meal
- 10% were hungry but did not eat
- 1.4% went a whole day without eating
If one were to look at the numbers for the most food insecure households, these percentages skyrocket: 67.2% of people feel hungry but do not have the chance to eat, and 30.7% – almost a third – of people go an entire day without eating.
Food Insecurity Means Missed Potential
Obviously, food insecurity can lead to hunger and medical problems. But it also affects much more.
Lack of nutritious food can affect our mood – ever hear the term “hangry,” to describe someone who is angry simply because they are hungry? This is because hunger triggers certain moods and behavioral patterns, patterns that can spin out of control if hunger goes on for too long. This, in turn, can lead to changes in brain development (especially in children), diminished decision making, and difficulties learning and developing.
More specifically, research has shown:
- Infants and toddlers growing up in food insecure households are almost twice as likely to face health problems and are much more likely to be hospitalized.
- Children who grow up in food insecure households often lag behind their food-secure peers in terms of cognitive, emotional, and physical development.
- Mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems, increase as food insecurity increases.
- Food-insecure children and teenagers miss school more frequently and are more likely to repeat a grade than their food-secure peers.
- Children from food insecure homes show smaller gains in reading and math scores over time than their food-secure peers.
- Food-insecure students often have problems getting along with other students, leading to a lack of socialization and engagement at school.
- Food-insecure children are twice as likely as their peers to see a psychologist or to have been suspended by the time they reach high school.
In fact, food insecure children are often starting a dangerous spiral. They arrive at school hypoglycemic, unable to focus, and irritable causing them to perform poorly academically and encounter social and behavioral problems. Then the cycle starts. Once they get labeled as “troublemakers” and “underperformers,” others expect this of them – and they begin to expect it of themselves. An action that causes many to drop out of school and out of society.
Food Insecurity is a National Problem
There are twelve states that exceed the national average in terms of food insecure households. Food insecurity does not strike in one particular region or can be traced to one political party’s dominance in that state. Oregon and Maine are on the list right next to Oklahoma and Kentucky. And this strike close to home for The Happy Tooth Foundation as well, as North Carolina is #8 on the list!
In 2015, it was estimated that 59% of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)
- The National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
- The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
Despite how one feels about such programs, it is clear that many families would go hungry if not for this federal aid. People on both sides of the aisle would agree that, in an ideal world, such programs would not be needed, and thus not taking so much of taxpayer’s hard earned money.
With So Much Food Insecurity, What Can We Do?
The numbers here can seem daunting. After all, if over 40 million people are food insecure, what can one person, one workplace, one charity, do? If food insecurity causes such pervasive problems for families, how can we possibly marshal the resources to get them back on the right track?
The trick is not to get discouraged by the sheer numbers. There are many grassroots efforts aimed at ending food insecurity in the United States; we are just one of them. Join us and help join the fight to end food insecurity, and learn more about our mission.