Understand Food Insecurity

What is Food Insecurity?

In 2015, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to 42 million Americans including 13 million children. [i].

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

It is important to know that hunger and food insecurity are closely related, but distinct, concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household.

Policy evaluation and both quantitative and qualitative research reveal food insecurity to be a complex problem. It does not exist in isolation, as low-income families are affected by multiple, overlapping issues like affordable housing, social isolation, and low wages. Many do not have what they need to meet basic needs and these challenges increase a family’s risk of food insecurity. Effective responses to food insecurity may need to address these overlapping challenges.

Taken together, issues such as affordable housing, social isolation, education level, unemployment or underemployment and food insecurity are important social determinants of health [ii] defined as the “conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” HungerandHealth.org explores the impact of food insecurity as a social determinant of health and its effect on individual and population health outcomes.

Poverty and food insecurity in the United States are closely related, but people living below the poverty line are not always experiencing food insecurity, and people living above the poverty line can experience food insecurity. Wages and other critical household expenses (such as caring for an ill child) can also help predict food insecurity among people living in the United States.

Who does Food Insecurity Affect?

There is no single face of food insecurity. It impacts every community in the United States. To learn more about child and overall food insecurity in your state, congressional district and even county, visit the Map the Meal Gap study conducted by Feeding America®. For information about food insecurity among certain populations, visit the pages below:

Feeding America Real Story: Samantha

Ranges of Food Security

There are four labels used to describe ranges of severity of food (in)security [iii].


  1. Ziliak, J.P. & Gundersen, C. (2016) The State of Senior Hunger in America 2014: An Annual Report, Supplement. National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH).

  2. Social Determinants of Health. Healthy People 2020. https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-of-health. Accessed January 24, 2017.

  3. Definitions of Food Security. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security/#ranges Updated October 6, 2016. Accessed January 12, 2017.