Is Food Insecurity the Same Thing as Hunger?

by Candi Helseth and Beth Blevins

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as having two ranges: low food security, with reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, but little or no indication of reduced food intake; and very low food security, with reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake (i.e., episodic hunger). “Very low food security” often simply goes by the label “food insecurity.”

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), 14.9 percent of households were food insecure in 2011 (most recent data). ERS also found that food insecurity is higher in rural areas, at an average of 15.4 percent.

This label is not without controversy. “Some people are concerned that we take the charge out of the true issue of hunger in America when we put a bureaucratic gloss on it using terminology centering on food insecurity,” says Clare Hinrichs (link no longer available), a Pennsylvania State University associate professor of rural sociology and author of several food system studies. “While it’s helpful to have definitions and clear, understandable ways of measuring a problem, there are those who say terminology like food insecurity fails to electrify people to an awareness of hunger and its increasing effects across our nation.”

Although the federal government offers national nutrition programs—including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or “food stamps”; Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and the National School Lunch Program—not all families experiencing episodic or long-term food insecurity qualify, or they qualify only for varying levels of support. An estimated 43 percent of food insecure households reported that they did not receive any type of federal assistance in 2011. Under federal rules, to be eligible for benefits a household’s income and resources must meet three standards: its gross monthly income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line ($30,000/year for a family of four); its net income must be at or below the poverty line; its assets must fall below certain limits—$2,000 or less for a household without an elderly or disabled member.

To learn more about food insecurity in specific areas of the United States, see the interactive Map the Meal Gap.


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