Understand Food Insecurity

What is Food Insecurity?

In 2017, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to 40 million Americans including more than 12 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, through both quantitative and qualitative research, reveals 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, health problems, medical costs, 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 will 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.” Hunger + Health 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.  Not all people living below the poverty line experience 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: Brittany

Ranges of Food Security

While households are often described as either food secure or food insecure, there are four levels of food security [iii] that describe the range of households’ experiences in accessing enough food. Households with high food security and marginal food security make up the food secure category, and households with low food security and very low food security make up the food insecure category.


  1. Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian A. Gregory, and Anita Singh. 2018. Household Food Security in the United States in 2017, ERR-256, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service

  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 September 5, 2018. Accessed September 24, 2018.