Hunger in the United States and the U.S. food system

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Hunger in the United States

According to USDA, an estimated 14% of American households (17.4 million households) were food insecure in 2014, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.

The Census Bureau statistics establish two grades of food insecurity: Very low food security and low food security.

The defining characteristic of very low food security is that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food. On average, households with very low food security at some time during the year experienced it in 7 or 8 months during the year and in 1 to 7 days in each of those months. Ninety-seven percent of those classified as having low food security reported that an adult had cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there was not enough money for food and 27 percent reported that an adult did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food.

In these food-insecure households, normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food. 6.7 million US households (5.7 percent of all US households) had very low food security at some time during 2008, a 39 percent increase from 2007 (4.1 percent of US households). This was the largest increase ever recorded since nationally representative food security surveys were initiated in 1995, as well as the largest year-to-year percentage increase. In 2014, 6.9 million households (5.6 percent of U.S. households) had very low food security which remains largely unchanged from 2008-2014.

Children were food insecure at times during the year in 3.7 million households (9.4 percent of U.S. households with children), essentially unchanged from 9.9 percent in 2013. These households were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.

Hunger and Poverty

Food insecurity is strongly associated with poverty in the United States. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap Study which produces county-level, congressional district level, and food bank service area level food insecurity rates, poverty is one of the drivers of food insecurity in the United States, and a one percentage point increase in poverty leads to a 0.18 increase in food insecurity. (See World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics for relationship between hunger and poverty).

There are differences in food security across demographic and geographic groups in the United States, and this reflect, in part, differences in income across those groups.

Rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average for the following groups:
• All households with children (19.2 percent)
• Households with children under age 6 (19.9 percent)
• Households with children headed by a single woman (35.3 percent) or a single man (21.7 percent) and other households with children (24.4 percent)
• Households headed by Black, non-Hispanics (26.1 percent), and Hispanics (22.4 percent)
• Low-income households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (33.7 percent)

Hunger, Poverty, Diet-related Diseases, and Costs for Hunger

Furthermore, hunger in the United States is strongly associated with obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart diseases. One important reason is that fresh vegetables and fruits that are beneficial for health are comparatively expensive, while processed foods with heavy sugar or/and fat are much cheaper to obtain calories for poor households. This was largely due to U.S. policies, particularly the federal farm subsidies which favor industrial farming system that produces great quantities of subsidized crops like the corn and soybeans used to make processed junk foods. (See short video: Fixing Our Broken Food System, by Union of Concerned Scientists)

According to Hunger in America 2014 survey, conducted by Feeding America, the largest US hunger-relief charity with a nationwide network of 200 member food banks that provides food assistance to an estimated 46.5 million Americans in needs each year, 33% of these client households have a member with diabetes and 58% of household have a member with high blood pressure. 66% of households reported that they had to choose between food and medical care. Hunger and food insecurity also drive up the healthcare costs, with an estimated $160 billion annual costs, according to Bread for the World Institute 2016 Hunger Report.

Food Waste

To capture a more complete image of the U.S. food system, it is worth noting that 40% of food is wasted, meanings that 40% of food grown, processed and transported in the U.S. is never consumed, albeit every one in every seven Americans in hunger. When food is disposed in a landfill it rots and becomes a significant source of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

To solve the hunger problem in the United States requires a systematic approach to fix the U.S. food system.

USDA report Household Food Security in the United States in 2014
Hunger in America 2014 Report
Map the Meal Gap 2015 Report
Bread for the World Institute 2016 Hunger Report
Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill

  • 1. What percentage of United States families are food insecure?
  • 2. Very low food security for a family means?
  • 3. What percentage of food is wasted and never consumed after grown, processed and transported in the United States?
  • 4. Hunger in the United States is often associated with?