The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”1 Low food security includes “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet[, with] little or no indication of reduced food intake,” while very low food security includes “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”2
But what about hunger? How does it differ from food insecurity? Even if we have never experienced uncertainty about where our next meal is coming from, we all understand hunger — it’s how we feel when we need to eat. The USDA used to track the rate of hunger, which it defines as an individual-level condition that may be caused by food insecurity. It did not track food insecurity, which is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”3 In 2006, after an expert panel commissioned by the USDA recommended the change, the agency changed its language and stopped using the word hunger altogether. The panel said the agency’s surveys didn’t precisely assess individual hunger, and suggested that measuring the extent and impact of household-level food insecurity would be more accurate. However, many people who work on food and hunger issues saw the language change as a way to gloss over a serious ongoing problem with clinical, less-evocative language, narrowing the definition of who is in need and where solutions lie, after many years of expanding these categories to help more people and communities.4
While the US government is now exclusively using the term food insecurity, international bodies still use both terms. The UN notes that at the individual level, hunger can eventually turn into malnutrition (deficiencies, imbalances or excesses of nutrients). Malnutrition is often caused by food insecurity, but can also be caused by factors such as poor health care or an unhealthy environment.5 At a population level, extreme hunger and malnutrition become famine, which the UN declares only in limited circumstances, when “at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.”6
1 in 8 households
are food insecure
While the US is a wealthy and overall food secure nation, many of its residents experience food insecurity. One in eight households, or 40 million people — including 12.5 million children — were food insecure at some time during 2017,7 with some groups facing much higher rates than the national average. Hispanic households have rates of food insecurity that are one and a half times the national average, while Black households have nearly twice the national average, and households headed by single mothers have almost three times the national average.8
There are serious risks to immediate and long-term health for both children and adults associated with food insecurity. Children face increased risks of some birth defects, anemia, asthma and higher rates of hospitalization. Hungry kids can have problems in school and socially, as they have higher rates of cognitive problems, aggression and anxiety. Food insecurity in adults is correlated with increased rates of mental health problems, diabetes, hypertension, poor sleep and overall poor health.9 These health outcomes are particularly troubling as they disproportionately impact populations who are already vulnerable and struggling with housing, health, work, discrimination and other challenges.
Worldwide, hunger and malnutrition are the number one risk to health, greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. The UN estimates that 821 million people experience chronic hunger — that’s one in nine people on the planet. Chronic food insecurity causes underweight, wasting, and stunted growth; one-quarter of the world’s children are stunted as a result of not having enough to eat.10
Today, food insecurity is not only associated with hunger; somewhat paradoxically, it often correlates with obesity as well. This does not mean that the two are necessarily causally linked. Both food insecurity and obesity are the consequences of poverty and a lack of access to nutritious food. Low-income neighborhoods often lack grocery stores or other markets that carry a wide range of healthy foods and instead have a high prevalence of convenience stores and fast food restaurants. People living in poverty are less likely to have reliable transportation for shopping. Healthy foods tend to be more expensive than highly processed foods that are filling but have low nutritional value. As an added obstacle, when fresh produce is available in low-income areas, it is often of poor quality, making it less appealing to purchase.
Opportunities for physical activity can be limited in low-income communities, which often lack parks, playgrounds or even sidewalks, and the stress of the financial and emotional pressures of poverty has been linked to obesity.11 Additionally, cycles of eating less or skipping meals can contribute to unhealthy or disordered eating or even metabolic changes that promote fat storage.12
Individuals become food insecure for any number of complex reasons, but the root cause is nearly always poverty. Environmental crises and a wide variety of political factors also contribute to hunger and food insecurity in the US and around the world.
Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks and other emergency food providers, reports that 72 percent of the households it served in 2014 lived at or below the federal poverty level, with a median annual household income of $9,175.13 People living in poverty are often juggling low wages, job insecurity, inadequate childcare and little free time, among other factors. There are often few options for healthy food where they live, and their income may run out before the next paycheck, leaving them without sufficient food to get through the week.
Additionally, in a terrible irony, the vast majority of people who grow, pick and process our food live in poverty and cannot afford to buy adequate healthy food. Eighty-six percent of jobs in the food system offer very low wages near or below the poverty level.14 Worldwide, the largest group of people in extreme poverty are smallholder farmers in developing countries, who do not have enough land to grow food to feed themselves for the year and too little income to buy what else they need.15
Globally, climate variability and extremes are a key driver behind recent rises in global hunger and one of the leading causes of severe food crises. The UN finds that hunger is significantly worse in countries with farming systems that are sensitive to rain and temperature variability and severe drought, and where the livelihood of much of the population depends on agriculture.16
But in more developed countries, too, climate change negatively affects all dimensions of food security and exacerbates other underlying causes of malnutrition related to child care and feeding, health services and environmental health. Going forward, both long-term impacts of climate change and short-term climate shocks will continue to impact food supply and food access through events such as flooding, drought, fire, loss of farmland to development, soil degradation, salinization and more.17
In the US, people have lost their homes, crops and livelihoods and have been displaced from their communities by hurricanes, floods and wildfires that are more frequent and more devastating as a result of a changing climate.18 This kind of loss and displacement can cause or exacerbate poverty and food insecurity.
There is a common myth that there is not enough food to feed the world, or that there will not be at some point in the not-too-distant future. The fact is that we already produce more than enough food to feed every person on earth. The problem is not quantity, it is political will: who controls the food supply and who has access to resources to produce or purchase food.
Several well-known famines in history, including the Irish Potato Famine and late 19th-century famines in India and China that killed tens of millions of people, were caused not by lack of food, but by lack of political will to distribute the food to people who were starving. In both of these cases, Ireland and India were actually exporting food to other English colonies.19 Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen, who witnessed a similar Indian famine in 1943 as a child, succinctly summarized the problem in his case study of that famine: “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.”20
In many developing countries, farmers have been encouraged to shift from growing crops to eat or sell locally to those destined for export. This shift has made many small farmers more vulnerable to hunger and poverty: if the cash crop fails or the price drops significantly on the global market, the farmers don’t make enough money to buy other food — and they can no longer eat what they grow.21
Somewhat similarly, the primary crops grown in the US are no longer food crops but are commodity grains used to feed animals or converted to ethanol or food additives. US farm policy supports the production of a steady stream of these crops to benefit corporate agribusiness, not the production of healthy, affordable food for people. This policy encourages vast overproduction, and, to find a market for the excess, we ship commodities abroad. US grain exporters sell US crops to other countries for less than they cost to produce in those other countries (a practice called “dumping”), which undercuts the local agricultural economy and drives small farmers into poverty and hunger.22
Conflict and war can have a dramatic impact on a population’s food security, as people are displaced from their homes, trade routes are disrupted and infrastructure is destroyed. Food insecurity can exacerbate or even create conflict situations as well, as the inability to grow or buy enough food can lead to tensions that become violent,23 such as in the world food price riots of 2007-2008.24 Food insecurity was a major factor that touched off the Arab Spring rebellions of 2010-2011.25
In the US, the federal government’s social safety net is smaller than it was in past decades, but 58 percent of food-insecure households still rely on these programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (often called WIC).26
These programs are critically important because they help families, children, new mothers, seniors and others meet their food needs, but the nutritional quality of this food has not always been high. Fortunately, in recent years, communities and advocates have made great strides in improving the quality of food available through these programs. New nutrition standards for the National School Lunch program phased in since 2012 are having a positive impact on students’ nutrition,27 while farm to school programs, which are in 42 percent of US schools,28 can further improve consumption of healthier foods at school.29 Many farmers’ markets now accept SNAP, and some offer incentives for using SNAP dollars to buy fresh fruits and vegetables by giving buyers an extra dollar for every dollar they spend on produce.30 Many states offer coupons for pregnant women, new mothers and seniors to purchase produce at farmers’ markets, which, like these other initiatives, is a win-win for both the shoppers and the farmers.
Food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and other charitable non-governmental emergency food providers address some of the additional need that is not met by federal food programs. These programs, while critically important, have also faced criticism for being too close to big food companies;31 for simply being a band-aid and not addressing issues of underlying systemic poverty;32 and for offering far too much unhealthy and highly processed foods.33 Some emergency food providers have been addressing these problems. For instance, the five-year-old Closing the Hunger Gap network’s food bank members focus on their clients’ health, nutrition and dignity; address race and gender inequities; and pursue community empowerment alongside food donations.
Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona (CFBSA), a founding member of the network, takes a holistic and community-based view of hunger. The food bank partners with farmers to increase the amount of healthy food available to their clients; offers classes on cooking, nutrition, gardening and other skills; provides microloans to small food businesses that improve community food access; involve clients in state and federal lobby days and much more. Thirty percent of the nation’s produce grows in or travels through Arizona, including 5.9 billion pounds of produce that comes through the border port of entry at Nogales annually. CFBSA also works with produce brokers to reclaim as much as 40 million pounds of excess produce that would otherwise end up in landfills and ships it not only to southern Arizona but to emergency food providers across the country.34 Some organizations also use emergency food programs to organize communities to advocate for changes in their communities.35
Globally, investments that support smallholder farmers so they may adopt sustainable agriculture techniques,36 along with investments in infrastructure and access to markets, are some of the most effective measures to combat hunger and poverty — as well as to mitigate some of the impacts of climate change.37 Support for education for women and girls as also critical.38