What Is Food Security?

Food insecurity means regularly not having enough food or living with the persistent fear of hunger or starvation. When food insecure households do have food available, the worry about where their next meals will come from may remain, or there may not be enough food to go around for each member of the household.


According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity exists on a spectrum, from high food security (defined as having no problems with access to food) to very low food security (disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake). Lacking the resources required to travel to grocery stores outside of their neighborhoods can also contribute to food insecurity.

Food security, on the other hand, is the ability to consistently access sufficient food to meet nutritional requirements. Causes of food insecurity include poverty and/or living in a food desert (also called food apartheid), which makes sufficient nutrient-dense food unaffordable and/or inaccessible to these families. Additionally, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this issue has become even more widespread as more families experience joblessness.

What Is a Food Desert?

A food desert is when a community doesn't have easy, close, and equitable access to nutritious foods due to affordable grocery stores not being located near their homes. Technically, the USDA defines a food desert as living more than one mile from a grocery store in urban neighborhoods and more than 10 miles from food stores in rural areas.

Low-income neighborhoods, especially in communities of color, are more often food deserts, so the term food apartheid references the segregation, disparity, and racism experienced by these groups, compared with more affluent (and often White) populations.

In fact, a 2020 study reports that almost 18% of the United States population (or approximately 54.4 million) live within food deserts. Additionally, Black and Hispanic communities are far more likely to live in food deserts and experience food insecurity, often at rates double or more than the rest of the population.

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

Contributing Factors

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

However, many Americans experiencing food insecurity don’t end up in this circumstance simply due to an extraordinary event. Rather, systemic oppression, such as redlining (denial of services such as loans), underperforming schools, and income inequality, results in low-wage jobs, fewer opportunities, a dearth of grocery stores, and a lack of transportation in their communities.

Paying workers a living wage and expanding social services may help to lower rates of food insecurity in the U.S.

Origins of the Term "Food Security"

The term food security was originally defined as “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption.” It 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.

Statistics on Food Insecurity

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 access to food; however, as noted above, around 18% of Americans live in food deserts, making it challenging to get food, even if there is money to do so.

People in households experiencing marginal food security vary slightly in that they may report anxiety about whether they will always have sufficient food without experiencing 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. Of those, 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 one in nine Americans. As noted above, these rates significantly increased in 2020 and 2021, a trend that is expected to continue into the near future due to the ongoing economic toll of the pandemic.

Food Security and Hunger

Food insecurity differs from hunger, the physiological process that occurs when a person is unable to (or does not) eat a sufficient amount of food to meet their basic nutritional needs for a prolonged period of time. 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 regular food intake that leads to hunger.

However, households experiencing low food security don’t always see a significant shift in their eating patterns but may 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 households with very low food security, the eating patterns of at least one household member are disrupted, with food intake dropping due to a lack of funds or resources.

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 enough food.

Who’s at Risk for Food Insecurity?

As noted above, food insecurity is more likely to affect communities of color and low-income households. Single-parent households, those with disabilities, and senior citizens are other populations that are at high risk for food insecurity. In fact, in 2018, 10% of people aged 60 and older faced food insecurity, and it's estimated that over 50% of senior citizens who are eligible for food assistance have not accessed that aid.

In 2018, 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 next. (Of course, these households may also overlap.)

Where one lives also influences access to food. The American 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

The solution to poverty-driven food insecurity is a multi-pronged approach that includes both policy and community interventions. Examples include:

  • Increasing access in low-income neighborhoods to a variety of community food resources, such as grocery stores, community gardens, farmers' markets, and food cooperatives
  • Investing in quality public education
  • Supporting living wage legislation
  • Advocating for federal and state-level nutrition programs

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

During the pandemic, many food banks, churches, and other charitable organizations have stepped up to feed the hungry, and school districts continue to feed students (and sometimes their families) after COVID-19 forced learning online. But these are temporary fixes to an ongoing problem, especially as joblessness rates soar and federal benefits end.

A Word From Verywell

Helping to end food insecurity begins with a thorough understanding of the pervasive nature of the problem—as well as compassion for those experiencing it. If you and your family are experiencing food insecurity, know that there are many federal, state, and local resources available (contact your local government offices and food banks to get connected with resources) to help you get through this challenging time.

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Article Sources
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