What is Food Insecurity?
Imagine the entire state of California not knowing where their next meal will come from. For 38.3 million Americans—just shy of California’s 39.5 million population—this uncertainty is a reality of daily life.
The effects of poverty are greatly varied, but many of them like homelessness, a lack of healthcare, and low wages, all are frequently a focus of public conversation. But several go largely undetected. One of these issues is food insecurity.
According to the USDA, food security “means access by all people at all times to enough food for a healthy life.” However, over 10% of the U.S. population struggle with food insecurity. Of these 38.3 million, 11.7 million of them—more than New York City’s population—are children.
Such figures lead to difficult questions: why do so many families and individuals struggle with food insecurity, and who are they? What are the consequences for our society when so many people go hungry? And finally, what can we do to fix this massive issue? In this article, we’ll get to know food insecurity and what we can do about it.
Let’s start with the term itself:
Giving Food Insecurity a Definition
Going by the USDA's definition of food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Food insecurity, therefore, can be understood as any time an individual or family doesn’t experience food security.
Many families and individuals experience food insecurity differently. The USDA gives four general ranges of both food security and food insecurity to understand these differences in experiences:
- High Food Security: The USDA defines high food security as individuals or households that don’t report any difficulties with accessing food or suffering from limitations. These households probably don’t worry about food, at least in any significant way.
- Marginal Food Security: According to the USDA, households with marginal food security have reported their occasional anxiety of having enough food, although they don’t indicate any noteworthy changes to their diet or consumption.
- Low Food Security: Households or individuals with low food security report that they consume lower quality food, less variety of foods, and have a generally less desirable diet, although they don’t necessarily consume less food overall.
- Very Low Food Security: Households with very low food security report that their eating patterns and food intake has been reduced or otherwise interrupted. These are people and families who may take actions such as foregoing meals to stretch their food over a longer period of time.
Essentially, food insecurity occurs when a person or group of people can’t access or afford enough quality food. Food insecurity is not hunger, although hunger may be a symptom of food insecurity.
Who is Food Insecure?
We’ve already briefly touched on how children are impacted greatly by food insecurity—you could populate a city larger than New York with all of America’s food-insecure children—but who are the communities most impacted by food insecurity?
Well, the answer is not so simple. With more than one in ten people in the U.S. being food insecure, you will find food insecurity in every community. However, some communities are more impacted by food insecurity than others. Households composed of Black or Hispanic families or individuals are twice as likely to be food insecure than the national average. Communities of color that have been and are still systematically oppressed and impoverished are the most affected by food insecurity.
What Causes Food Insecurity?
The causes that impact food insecurity are wide in scope, and we won’t be able to cover them all here. They are both historical and present-day, deliberate and unintended, but regardless, they are all real and impact a massive portion of our population here in the U.S.
Geography and urban planning has some impact on food insecurity. A food desert is a popular term used to describe areas where the residents can’t access affordable, healthy foods. This means a majority of the population lives a mile or more from an affordable grocery store in urban areas, and 10 miles in rural areas. For areas that have no public transportation or unreliable transport, individuals who don’t own a car, and individuals who struggle with mobility, healthy, nutritious foods are simply out of reach, both physically and economically.
However, despite their impact, pinning the issue of food insecurity on food deserts conveniently ignores the systemic issues contributing to food insecurity. Most people, even low-income individuals, don’t automatically grocery shop at whichever store is closest to them. They may instead opt for a preferred grocery store or chain with lower prices, or instead choose to shop near their workplace, chaining multiple trips together.
Thus, access, geographic location, and food deserts actually aren’t the main problems facing food-insecure households. The main cause of food insecurity is poverty. While mobility, transportation, and car-centricity are still issues that are deeply connected with poverty, geographic access, as stated by the USDA in a 2014 report, is not “associated with the percentage of households that [are] food insecure.”
The fact is that 38.3 million Americans simply can’t afford food, or enough quality food; living within a mile of a grocery store and having reliable transportation there and back still wouldn’t change that. Low wages and centuries of discrimination have led to a situation where many low-income households spend over a quarter of their income on food, whereas middle and high-income households spend more money, but still a smaller percentage of their income, on food.
The Impact of Food Insecurity
The impacts of food insecurity are wide-ranging. For one thing, considering that food-insecure households spend upwards of 27% of their income on food, it makes budgeting and prioritizing other expenses painfully difficult. When budgeting the cost of food in the face of other necessary expenses like housing, energy, and healthcare, it creates an impossible balancing act: to choose between staying in your apartment, eating, or taking necessary medications.
Medications, too, are related to food insecurity, as food insecurity has ranging health impacts for both children and adults. Food insecure adults may be at higher risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and depression.
Now, food insecurity is not permanent. It can be brief while a member of the household is between jobs, or during times of other financial hardship, or it can last over an extended period of time, particularly in the case of individuals who can’t work due to disabilities. However, children who experience extended food insecurity are even more at risk, as its effects can compound throughout their life and development.
Learning outcomes can also be adversely impacted by food insecurity. Inadequate nutrients from their diets can lead to a weakened immune system in children, which can lead to frequent absences. When food-insecure children are at school, they may be unable to focus, resulting in worse performance and retention. Essentially, when children experience food insecurity, it can set them up for challenges for the rest of their lives.
Solutions to Ending Food Insecurity
Continue Modernizing SNAP Benefits: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often known as SNAP, provides benefits to households and individuals struggling with food insecurity. However, while crucial to helping millions of families, SNAP benefits need to be modernized. They are still based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which is no longer an accurate measure for food expenditures. The TFP doesn’t even meet all the U.S.’s federal nutrition standards.
SNAP benefits are also equal across the country, regardless of differences in cost of living—a feature that is very beneficial to some, while detrimental to others. Many households living in areas where they must devote a larger portion of their income to expenses like housing often have less money available for food, and SNAP benefits are insufficient in these instances. Additionally, SNAP benefits don’t account for the amount of time it takes to cook and prepare meals, a fact that does a great disservice to the many low-wage workers who need to work long, often odd hours to cover expenses such as rent—they’re already stretched for time.
Reduce Food Waste: According to the USDA, between 30 and 40% of the nation’s food supply goes to waste. Globally, the number is closer to about 30%, which would be enough to feed 2 billion people, effectively eliminating hunger. However, there’s a long way to go in reducing and eliminating food waste.
Food is wasted at various stages of production. Regardless of how products are wasted, be it through spoilage during transportation, being discarded for aesthetic blemishes, or being binned after passing sell-by dates, an astronomical amount of food in the U.S. goes to waste.
One solution is to improve transparency and clarity for food safety by instituting consistent labeling conventions. The discrepancies between best-by dates, use-by dates, and sell-by dates often cause confusion for customers and lead to food being discarded before it needs to be. According to the USDA, most foods are safe and wholesome until there’s evidence of spoilage, provided that they’re handled properly.
Additionally, policies should be set in place that protect national grocery retailers from rare liabilities not covered under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, so they can donate surplus and unsold goods to charities and local food banks, greatly reducing hunger within communities.
Offer Free School Lunches For All: School lunch should be free for all students. It is essential for students' ability to remain focused throughout the day and improve learning outcomes. And while learning is one of the most important parts of school, providing free school lunches to all students would come with a host of benefits:
- Reduced stigma around needing school lunch
- Improved variety and quality of foods in students’ diets, particularly with fresh fruits and vegetables
- Improved health and lowered obesity rates
- Higher attendance rates from low-income, food insecure students
School is most beneficial when students are prepared, both mentally and physically, to learn. When students don’t have access to the necessary food and nutrients they need, especially when they’re growing, it reduces their chances of success.
As we’ve said, food insecurity impacts every community. It’s less common in some places, and more common in others, but every state and community is impacted nonetheless. Helping reduce food insecurity is a great way to effect change for the good of your community. There are a few simple ways to get involved and make an impact, regardless of your own comfort level.
Volunteer: Volunteering with food banks, co-ops, and mutual aid networks is a great way to both fight food insecurity and strengthen bonds in your community. Volunteering benefits everyone involved: it gives you opportunities to make new friends and connections, learn new skills, and is fun (it really is!).
Contact Your Representatives: To create systemic change effectively, you need power. Your representatives, both nationally and locally, are elected to serve you and your community. Use your voice to contact them with your concerns about food insecurity. You can find your local representative here.
Donate: Donations are always welcome by many organizations fighting food insecurity. Whether in the form of money or food products, your donations can go a long way to helping people in need.
Take Action Against Food Insecurity Today
The U.S. is commonly referred to as the most abundant land on the planet. We produce more food than we can consume, and still over a tenth of our population, including millions of children, go hungry and struggle with food insecurity.
While there are countless factors that lead to food insecurity, none is more obvious and culpable than poverty itself. The benefits and support we provide our impoverished brothers and sisters are not enough, and we can afford to do so much more: after all, we currently end up throwing out over 30% of the food we produce.
Addressing food insecurity is a massive challenge, but it can be done. Progress can be made systemically and on a community level; they’re often one and the same.