Food-Insecurity: Numbers and Definitions

In 2008 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a report that looked into how many people fell into the category of food-insecure in the U.S. The report also offered some very helpful definitions for some of the key terms that those who are becoming aware of the issue will hear.

As of 2008 there were 49.1 million people living in food-insecure households. This was up from 36.2 million in 2007. This is about 15% of all adults and 22% of all children. Of that group over 17 million lived in households that are described as having “very low food-security.” That number was up almost 70% from the previous year. Community Plates is working right now to find and report current numbers but everyone interested in the topic is sure that as a result of the economic downturn of the last few years these numbers are almost certainly substantially higher.

While we’re talking numbers it’s worth noting that black and hispanic households experienced food-insecurity at far higher rates than the national average.

Now for the definitions:

Food-insecurity refers to the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources. Basic needs are not just for adequate amounts of food but for adequate amounts of nutritious foods. Everyone is well aware of the importance of nutrition as it relates to the health and growth of children which makes the 22% number in children so alarming.

As it relates to food-insecurity, the terms used in the survey that captured the data and numbers referred to here to describe food security are:

High Food Security: These are households that did not answer ‘yes’ to any of the food insecurity questions.

Marginal Food Security: These are families that answered ‘yes’ to one or two of the food security questions, meaning they have had some difficulties with securing enough food. Previously, they would have been categorized as “Food Secure.”

Then there are two groups together that are referred to as food insecure. The terms used in the survey are:

Low Food Security: Generally, people that fall into this category have had to make changes in the quality or the quantity of their food in order to deal with a limited budget.

Very Low Food Security: People that fall into this category have struggled with having enough food for the household, including cutting back or skipping meals on a frequent basis for both adults and children.

According to the results of a Census Bureau survey, those at greatest risk of being hungry or on the edge of hunger (i.e., food insecure) live in households that are: headed by a single woman; Hispanic or Black; or with incomes below the poverty line. Overall, households with children experience food insecurity at almost double the rate for households without children.

What do these number call us to?

The ability to obtain enough food for an active, healthy life is the most basic of human needs. Food insecure households cannot achieve this fundamental level of well-being. They are the ones in our country most likely to be hungry, undernourished, and in poor health, and the ones most in need of assistance. A high number of food insecure households in a nation with our economic plenty means that the fruits of our economy, and the benefits of public and private programs for needy people, are not yet reaching millions of low-income people who are at great risk.