What is Food Insecurity? Ending Child Hunger in America

What is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is defined as the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Consistent, reliable access to adequate food can be limited by a lack of money and other resources at various times during the year, or simply by lack of access in “food deserts.”You might wonder how this differs from hunger, childhood hunger, and poverty. Though food insecurity is part of a complicated web of causes and effects, it is importantly different from these other issues. Namely…

Food Insecurity Is a Fight We Can Win

Poverty, hunger, and food insecurity are all related. But they are not the same thing. Fighting food insecurity is more feasible because food insecurity is something that can be defined and measured. And when something is defined and measured, people are more likely to take action.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps statistics on the number of households in the U.S. that face food insecurity. They make the following distinction between what is food insecurity vs. what is hunger:

  • Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition, reflecting that households access (or lack of access) to adequate food.
  • Hunger is an individual-level physiological and psychological condition, reflecting whether an individual has had enough food to suit their needs at a given time.

So, food insecurity often causes hunger. But food insecurity measures household access. And research shows that food insecurity tends to be episodic and often cyclical.

Around 40 percent of children in households near or below the poverty line is also considered to be in food insecure households. Specifically, those with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or single men, women, and men living alone, and Black- and Hispanic-headed households all have rates of food insecurity that are substantially higher than the national average.

But, while it is true that poorer households experience food security at a much higher rate, food insecurity is not synonymous with poverty. Poverty is a cause of food insecurity (though not the only one). And food insecurity is one common outcome of poverty (though, again, not the only one).

This gives us some reasons for hope. Poverty is a huge, intricate problem that is tough to tackle. On the other hand, food security is a smaller, more tractable problem. Looking at things from the other end, hunger is difficult to measure, highly subjective, and varies a lot over time. Food security can be measured at the household level over longer periods of time. Because it can be measured, it can be studied, and different solutions can be compared in terms of their effects.

In short, food insecurity is something we can fight effectively.


Federal Definitions for Levels of Food Insecurity in the U.S.

In 2006, the USDA introduced a new language to describe ranges of severity of food insecurity:

Food Security Levels

  • High food security: no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
  • Marginal 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.
  • Low food security: reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security: Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

It makes sense that there would be different levels of food insecurity. It is not an “on or off” condition, but rather a scale along which different households can settle and move. A household that had marginal food security one year can find itself with very low food security the next, depending on the economy and household events during that year.

Food Insecurity and Children

Food insecurity tends to hit children and teenagers the hardest. Roughly 10% of households with children reach some level of food insecurity at some point during a given year. This means that 3.9 households were unable at times to provide their children with adequate nutritious food!

Even more heartbreaking, about 1.2% of households with children – some 463,000 households overall – face what the USDA calls “very low food security,” which means multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and food intake.

Too often, this food insecurity is hidden, showing itself only as poor academic performance, behavioral problems, or trouble at school. Indeed, many children are said to suffer from “hidden hunger” – nutritional deficiencies that cause serious health problems in children who don’t “look hungry.”

What is Food Insecurity

This hidden hunger can also affect mood and temperament, creating a vicious cycle where children who are merely hungry get labeled as “poor performers” or “troublemakers,” labels that can last well beyond the time that their homes are food insecure, and well beyond school years.

Whether children experience hunger themselves or witness it in their parents or siblings, living in an environment of scarcity has significant effects on a child’s stress levels, attitudes, and ultimately, their brain development.

Ending Child Hunger by Fighting Food Insecurity

There is no one magic bullet to combat childhood hunger or poverty. But we can make progress on the smaller issue of food insecurity.

At The Happy Tooth Foundation, we build on what is being done at the state and federal level to combat food insecurity. We do this through a national network of volunteers who give their time, energy, and talent to raising awareness of food insecurity issues and working with at-risk communities. We also sponsor Summer Triathlon Camps specifically for at-risk youth, giving them a new sense of camaraderie and achievement that comes with training and completing triathlon – as well as two nutritious meals a day.