What Is Food Security?

Food security is the ability to consistently access the nourishment needed to meet dietary needs and not live in fear of hunger or starvation. In food secure households, there is enough food to go around for everyone to maintain a well-balanced diet all the time. In food insecure households, however, such food is frequently unavailable because members can’t afford a variety of nutrient-dense foods, don’t live near businesses that sell it due to food apartheid, or can’t access the resources required to travel to grocery stores outside of their neighborhoods.

Food insecurity exists on a spectrum, with households experiencing high food security, marginal food security, low food security, and very low food security, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A variety of factors—including income, region, race, gender, and age—may influence a person’s access to food.

Additional Causes of Food Insecurity

Major national events, be it an economic recession, natural disaster, or pandemic, also affect food security. In 2020, when the coronavirus spread across the U.S. and forced many states into lockdown, food insecurity grew as unemployment rose to record numbers. During that unprecedented time, some individuals who had never faced food insecurity found themselves visiting soup kitchens for the first time. 

Most Americans experiencing food insecurity didn’t end up in that circumstance due to an extraordinary event. Rather, systemic oppression (specifically, redlining and income inequality) results in low-wage jobs, a dearth of full-service grocery stores, and a lack of transportation in their communities. Paying workers a living wage and expanding social services for vulnerable people may help to lower rates of food insecurity in the U.S.

Understanding Food Insecurity

  • Food security describes one’s ability to regularly access the nourishing food needed to lead an active and healthy life.
  • The term food security dates back to the 1974 World Food Summit.
  • Households can experience different levels of food security, ranging from secure, marginally secure, insecure, low food secure, and very low food secure.
  • Poverty is the greatest contributor to food insecurity.

Origins of the Term ‘Food Security’

A definition of the term food security, describing the issue as “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption,” first appeared at the 1974 World Food Summit, but it has since evolved.

In 1983, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defined food security as “ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food that they need.” And by the 1996 World Food Summit, food security’s definition had grown even more specific:

  • “Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Five years later, the FAO’s 2001 report “The State of Food Insecurity in the World” included social access to food, and not just physical and economic access, in its definition of food security.

Social access to food describes one’s ability to obtain nourishment in socially acceptable ways, such as going to a supermarket to buy groceries rather than stealing food, scavenging for it, or relying on emergency food supplies for nourishment.

How Many U.S. Households Are Food Insecure?

In a wealthy country such as the United States, most households are food secure. According to the USDA, 88.9% (114.9 million) of U.S. households were food secure throughout 2018. This categorization means household members had no problems accessing food.

People in households experiencing marginal food security vary slightly in that they may have reported anxiety about whether they would always have sufficient food but did not experience any changes in food intake.

Food security may be the norm in the U.S., but that doesn’t erase the fact that significant numbers of households experience food insecurity.

In 2018, 11.1% (14.3 million) of households were food insecure, while 6.8% (8.7 million) experienced low food security, and 4.3% (5.6 million) experienced very low food security. Altogether, 37.2 million people in the U.S. were food insecure, which is about 1 in 9 Americans.

The USDA categorizes households as food insecure if they experienced times during the year when they couldn’t access enough food to meet the dietary needs of every member. Households described as having low food security didn’t necessarily see a significant shift in their eating patterns but did use coping methods, such as simplifying their diets, relying on federal food assistance programs, or obtaining emergency resources from food banks, to stay fed.

In very low food-insecure households, the eating patterns of at least one household member are disrupted, with food intake dropping at times due to a lack of funds or resources to access food.

Food Security and Hunger

Food security and hunger may not always intersect, but they are related; if people are food insecure for months at a time, they may very well experience a substantial drop in food intake that leads to hunger.

People in food insecure households have common characteristics. The USDA found that 98% of people in these households worried that food would run out before they could afford to buy more; 96% reported lacking money for balanced meals; and 47% reported weight loss because they couldn’t afford food.

Food insecurity differs from hunger, the physiological process that occurs when a person is unable to eat a sufficient amount of food to meet their basic nutritional needs for a prolonged period of time.

Who’s at Risk for Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is more likely to affect low-income households than any other kind. Households with incomes below 185% of the poverty level, which was $25,465 for a family of four in 2018, comprised 29.1% of the food insecure population in the U.S. Households with children headed by a single woman made up 27.8% of this population, while Black (21.2%) and Hispanic households (16.2%) came in next. 

Where one lives also influences access to food, as the U.S. South has the highest food insecurity rate with 12% of its population lacking consistent access to nutrient-rich food. The Midwest (10.8%), West (10.4%), and Northeast (10.2%) follow.

With 16.8% of its population reporting insufficient access to food, New Mexico is the state with the highest food insecurity, followed by Mississippi, which has a 15.9% food insecure population, and Louisiana, which has a 15.8% food insecure population.

Fighting Food Insecurity

Poverty is the biggest contributor to food insecurity. The solution to poverty-driven food insecurity is a multi-pronged approach that includes both policy and community interventions. Examples include increasing access to a variety of community food resources such as grocery stores, community gardens, farmers' markets, and food cooperatives; supporting living wage legislation; and advocating for federal and state-level nutrition programs.

Campaigns like Fight for $15 ask that employers pay their workers at least that amount and provide them with health benefits and sick leave, but America’s lowest paid workers continue to make far below that. The federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour.

In 2020, both proposed cuts to the nation’s food stamp program and high rates of joblessness put more Americans at risk of food insecurity. Food banks, churches, and other charitable organizations stepped up to feed the hungry, and school districts continued feeding students (and sometimes their families) after COVID-19 forced learning online. But these are temporary fixes to an ongoing problem.

Enacting legislation to raise wages, spur job growth, close the wealth gap, and put more grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods are some of the measures lawmakers can take to reduce food insecurity. 

A Word From Verywell

Contributing to the fight to end food insecurity begins with a thorough understanding of the pervasive nature of the problem. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has published extensive literature on this matter; in addition it's important to stay aware of how current leadership in our country is handling the matter, and to advocate for elected officials who will help change policy and push for more equitable practices as opposed to those who won't.

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Article Sources
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  5. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Definitions of food security. 2019 Sep 4.