When you think of food insecurity, most likely you think of developing countries and poor children running around without clothes. However, it’s much closer to home than you probably realize. Did you know that food insecurity affects many people across the country? What can we do to correct this problem?

In 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, which is over 38 million people, including almost 12 million children. The agency defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in the household to live an active, healthy life. For some, this is a temporary situation. For others, it can last a long time.

Food insecurity leads to hunger. While hunger and food insecurity are closely related, they’re separate concepts. Hunger is a personal, physical sensation of discomfort. Food insecurity is a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level.

Four levels of food security describe the range of households’ experiences when accessing enough food. The two levels in the food secure category are households with high food security and marginal food security. Families with low food security and very low food security fall into the food insecure category. In 2019, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that one in nine people used SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps), making it the largest food assistance program for low-income Americans in the nation.

The causes of food insecurity are complex. Families across America face numerous situations that can result in food insecurity, such as layoffs at work, unexpected car maintenance, or an accident on the job. Other causes include lack of affordable housing, chronic health conditions, lack of access to healthcare, systemic racism, and racial discrimination. All of these, especially if multiple of them are present, can force a family to choose between buying food and paying bills.

While it depends on individual circumstances, food insecurity can significantly impact health. One of the most serious is health complications that arise, particularly when people are forced to choose between spending money on food and medicine or medical care. Research from the USDA shows that food-insecure individuals are more likely to have chronic diet-related diseases and are less able to manage them. Furthermore, the data shows that food insecurity is often associated with cognitive delays and behavioral challenges in children and adolescents.

Food Insecurity Within Certain Populations

In 2019, the statistics showed that 5.2 million seniors over 60 faced hunger, which is 1 in 14 seniors or 7.1%. When seniors visiting food banks were surveyed, 63% said they have to choose between food and medical care. When seniors don’t have access to food that provides them with proper nutrition, it puts them at risk for chronic health conditions, such as depression, asthma, and diabetes. Some seniors are more likely to face hunger, including those who identify as Black or Latino, live in rural areas, have disabilities, and are renters. While millions of seniors qualify for SNAP benefits, only 42% receive them.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of children facing hunger rose from over 10 million in 2019 to nearly 12 million in 2020. Families with children, especially single-parent families, are more likely to face hunger. Kids who don’t get enough to eat, especially during their first three years, are more likely to be hospitalized and face higher risks of health conditions like anemia and asthma. They’re also more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, experience developmental impairments in language and motor skills, and have more social and behavioral problems. Black and Latino children are more than twice as likely to face hunger as white children.

Due to social, economic, and environmental challenges, Black Americans consistently face hunger at higher rates than white Americans. The 2020 numbers indicate that 24% of Black individuals experienced food insecurity, which is greater than three times the rate of whites. Discriminatory policies and practices have resulted in Black people being more likely to live in poverty, face unemployment, and have fewer financial resources (ex. savings or property). The median income for Black households is roughly $46,000 per year, versus non-Hispanic, white families is approximately $71,000 per year. The overall poverty rate of 11.4%, however, within the Black community, it’s 19.5%, and within the non-Hispanic, white community, it’s 10.1%. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has only increased these disparities.

Similar to Black Americans, Latino communities are more vulnerable to hunger. In 2020, more than 19% of all Latinos were food insecure, whereas, in 2019, it was 16%. Latinos are 2.5 times more likely to experience food insecurity than white individuals. According to the United States Census, 1 in 6 Latinos live in poverty compared to 1 in 16 white people. Racial prejudice and barriers in language, education, and culture create inequalities that make Latino communities more affected by food insecurity.

People who live in food deserts usually experience food insecurity because food is harder to get. A food desert is defined differently depending on where you live. In urban settings, if you live more than a mile away from a supermarket, you’re in a food desert. For rural areas, it’s greater than 10 miles. According to the USDA figures from 2015, about 19 million people, almost 6% of the population, lived in a food desert, and 2.1 million households both lived in a food desert and lacked access to a vehicle. Also, groceries sold in food deserts often cost considerably more than groceries sold in other areas. So, people in low-income communities dealing with food insecurity pay more for their food.

People in rural communities face hunger at higher rates than those in urban areas. While rural areas make up just 63% of counties in the country, they make up close to 90% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity. Child hunger is more common in rural communities. The numbers indicate that 86% of the counties with the highest percentage of children at risk for food insecurity are rural.

Also, poverty is worse in rural communities. In 2019, 13.3% of all people in rural areas lived below the poverty line compared to 10.0% of people in urban areas. People of color living in rural areas are more likely to face hunger due to long-term inequalities. Those living in a rural community face unique challenges when sourcing food. One problem is the lack of transportation, especially when the nearest grocery store, food pantry, or food bank is possibly hours away. In addition, job opportunities are typically more concentrated in low-wage industries. Further, there are higher unemployment rates and underemployment in rural areas.

Covid-19’s Impacts on Food Security

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of families experiencing food insecurity steadily decreased. As economic instability and the health crisis are still being dealt with, experts fear that we could experience the worst rates of food insecurity in recent years. According to the United Nations World Food Program, the number of people experiencing acute food insecurity rose from 135 million in 2019 to 265 million in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health conducted a survey via social media. It found that almost 15% of all U.S. households and nearly 18% of families with children indicated they faced food insecurity early in the pandemic. The survey was completed in mid-April 2020 and included more than 5,600 adults from across the country, 25% of whom had children at home. It used a six-item questionnaire developed by the USDA to assess food insecurity. Researchers pointed out that compared to the general population, the survey sample was predominantly white and had higher education and income levels.

Another report found that in 2020, 7.6% of households with children, close to 3 million families, were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their kids, up from 6.5% in 2019. In addition, around 0.8% of households with children (roughly 322,000 families) faced very low food security, meaning children were hungry, skipped a meal, or did not eat for a day because there wasn’t enough money for food. Only 0.6% of households experienced this the previous year.

In 2020, around 60 million people, or 1 in 5 Americans, received charitable food assistance, an increase of 50% from the previous year. Feeding America has a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. The organization distributed more than 6 billion meals in 2020, up 44% from 2019.

A big lesson from the pandemic is the critical role that school meals play in the nutrition safety net. Their value became evident when children didn’t have access to them. Also, school closures may have indirectly increased food hardship by making it harder for parents to return to work, impacting their ability to afford food.

What’s being done?

No question that the Covid-19 pandemic started as a health crisis, but it quickly became an economic one as a result of the lockdowns. In a financial crisis, food is often the first expense a family will cut because grocery purchases can be incrementally reduced and meals stretched, but unpaid rents risk eviction. It’s important to note that the poorer a household is, the more likely it is to experience food insecurity. However, most of those suffering from food insecurity are not poor. In a survey, among households disclosing their incomes, 34% were poor, while 32% had incomes higher than 185% of the poverty line, or about $26,000 for a family of four.

Widespread coverage of food insecurity and the increased usage of food pantries destigmatized the need to seek food assistance. So, it’s not surprising the demand for the SNAP program has been growing. However, SNAP benefits are inadequate compared to local food prices in some locations. Also, some Americans earn just above the income required to attain these benefits.

As part of the government’s emergency response, the Families First Act was passed, increasing the maximum benefit for SNAP recipients by an estimated 40%. As a result, SNAP grew by 17% from February 2020 to May 2020, three times faster than in any previous three-month period, according to an analysis from the New York Times. Yet even with that expanded aid, the program hasn’t been able to meet the nation’s food security needs.

Congress sought to relieve the spike in need by allocating $850 million to boost The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides supplies to food banks, in relief packages passed in March 2020. Lawmakers also increased the benefits of SNAP by 15%, or about $27 per month per person, in late December.

In addition, legislators created the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides benefits to children who normally receive free or reduced-price school meals but were studying remotely. However, states were slow on the rollout. The USDA used relief funds to create the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which delivered nearly 167 million boxes of fresh food to struggling Americans and helped farmers sell their produce. Furthermore, Congress enhanced the child tax credit for 2021, which is expected to cut child poverty nearly in half this year and should hopefully help ease food insecurity among children.

Per Feeding America, despite the economy improving and more Americans working, requests for food assistance are still higher than before the pandemic. According to USDA data, the country has made virtually no progress toward solving this issue of food insecurity in the last two years. The government said that over 10% of U.S. households (13.8 million) were food insecure at some time during 2020, which was unchanged from 2019. However, food insecurity did rise among some groups, including households with children, households with Black Americans, and households in the South. Also, the gap between Black and white households widened further.

What needs to be done?

When it comes to food insecurity, it needs to be framed as a public health issue because it doesn’t exist in isolation. Low-income families are affected by multiple, overlapping issues, such as lack of affordable housing, social isolation, economic/social disadvantage resulting from structural racism, chronic or acute health problems, high medical costs, and low wages. When combined, these issues are social determinants of health. Effective responses to food insecurity must address these overlapping challenges, which require the broad reach of public health.

Studies suggest that about one-third of all food globally is wasted, especially nutrient-dense, perishable foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy. To prevent food from being thrown away and redirect it to those who are food insecure, we need to develop processes that help distribute the food to those who need it the most. One innovative tool being created is a mobile app called “Food2Share.” It’s designed as a digital marketplace to connect local restaurants with food-insecure individuals. The app will allow people to claim food from local restaurants willing to provide free or highly discounted food donated by other customers.

The strategies we use to tackle food insecurity must be changed because we take the short Band-Aid approach. Instead, we need to lean into the problem long term. Access to food is a fundamental human right, and there shouldn’t be any excuse for anyone to go hungry in this country. Yet, many Americans are in precarious situations where they’re working, but one car repair or sick kid can send them into food insecurity. We need safety nets to help individuals who face this outcome and should be designing systems, so it doesn’t happen in the first place!