Food Insecurity Is a Bigger Problem Than Our Government Thinks

May 9, 2023 | 4:31 pm
close-up photo of one hand reaching out with a bowl of soup and another hand taking the bowl; in the background are other hands dishing out soup and other hands ready to accept the soupaddkm/Shutterstock
Alice Reznickova
Former Contributor

If you’ve been following my blog for the past six months, you probably know national food insecurity rates by heart. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), 10% of households in the United States were not sure where their next meal was going to come from in 2021. Among Black households, it was 20%, and among Hispanic households, 16%. But how do we know this—and do these numbers accurately represent the experiences of households across the United States?

It turns out that we don’t actually know current food insecurity levels—at least not based on federal government sources. The federal government only reports food insecurity data once a year, but new research shows that if people are asked about food insecurity on a monthly basis, the rates go up by one-third. Food insecurity measurements also do not take into account where households get their food, masking the essential role public benefits and food pantries play in supporting families. Finally, the data only tell us if people ate enough food—not whether the food was healthy for the people who ate it, or for the environment.

In this blog, I will take you through the science of measuring food insecurity in the United States and explain how the current measurements severely downplay the experience of people who are struggling. We need a new measurement of food insecurity to address these issues, but we also need to advocate for solutions that address the root causes of food insecurity.

We don’t measure frequently enough

Every time I have written about food insecurity since my first blog post in November 2022, I have used the same statistic. This is because the USDA only surveys food insecurity once a year (each December), via a supplement to its monthly Current Population Survey, then publishes a summary report such as this one the following September. The numbers I am able to cite now, in May 2023, were published in September 2022, citing research from December 2021.

Of course, a lot has happened since December 2021. We were still in the middle of the COVID-19 public health emergency, to which the federal government responded by expanding public benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This was before consumers were hit hard by inflation that drove food prices up steeply, and before the government ended the expanded SNAP benefits prematurely this past March. To understand how households experienced inflation and the reduction in SNAP benefits, we will have to wait for the USDA’s September 2024 report.

In addition to this delay in data collection and analysis, food insecurity is likely underreported. The USDA relies on questions that ask households to recall whether they had enough to eat over the course of an entire year. But as noted above, a new study released last month showed that when asked almost monthly, about a third of the participants who reported food insecurity in earlier months did not report it in a final survey that asked about food insecurity during the past 12 months.

How can policymakers address an emergency like hunger if they do not have accurate, up-to-date information? We know it is possible for the federal government to collect data more frequently: the Household Pulse Survey, for instance, collects data every week in order to understand the impact of the pandemic on various aspects of people’s lives, including housing, employment, transportation, and food sufficiency. Though the latter measurement provides limited information compared with the USDA’s multiple criteria for determining food security, it at least shows that the government is capable of collecting this kind of data on a regular basis.

Food banks and pantries also collect some data, but their measurements are often site-specific and measure food insecurity indirectly, in terms of visits to pantries and pounds of food distributed. While food banks and pantries do not capture food insecurity directly, they do offer personal stories from community members, which counteract what we are seeing in the national data. Despite food insecurity hovering around 10% to 11% between 2019 and 2021, during the recent emergencies, food banks and pantries experienced long lines and were worried about running out of food. Feeding America reports that in 2021, 53 million people turned to food banks, one-third more than before the pandemic. The recent “hunger cliff” led to more people seeking food pantry help—in some cases, more than during the pandemic.

We don’t measure alternative ways of obtaining food

SNAP promotes food security by directly supplementing a household’s food budget, but it may conceal the scale of the problem. In 2021, 60% of people who received SNAP benefits identified as being food secure, so these recipients do not show up in national food insecurity rates, but they could be a single SNAP payment away from losing their food security. This also means that 40% of people who receive SNAP benefits identify as being food insecure—so apparently the benefits are not enough!

The USDA questionnaire that measures food insecurity does not include specific questions about how a household obtains food (although some questions do refer to purchasing food, which is what SNAP recipients do using a government-issued debit card). Therefore, it does not capture families who can only afford food because of SNAP benefits. A recent story from the Washington Post illustrates this: a family that lost their SNAP benefits due to an administrative issue went from being food secure to insecure overnight—and could not eat unless they got food from a local food bank—until they were able to get their benefits reinstated. (Note that this story comes from Iowa, where lawmakers are busy devising a plan to cut SNAP that would cost the state more money to implement than is in its current SNAP budget.)

The questionnaire also does not ask whether households supplement their food with visits to food pantries or soup kitchens, or with help from family and friends. How many households would become food insecure if their local food pantry were to close, or not have enough food for everyone? And how many would become food insecure due to changes to SNAP benefits such as the recent hunger cliff or if Congress passes stricter work requirements?

We don’t measure sustainability and nutrition

I’ve made this argument before, but it is worth repeating: the USDA only cares about whether people eat enough food, not whether it is nutritious or sustainable. Its only question that hints at anything beyond food quantity is one about a balanced diet, but that question is so vague that it does not tell us much. Households can differ in their understanding of a balanced meal and may not be able to assess it accurately over a full year.

This means that being food secure does not mean eating nutritiously or sustainably. Given that most of the food produced in the United States takes the form of overprocessed, overpackaged, industrially grown or raised commodity products, those who are food secure may have eaten enough, but enough of what?

Luckily, researchers have already begun to identify how to measure nutrition security, and hopefully it will be refined with additional criteria for sustainability and ethics. At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have proposed expanding the current vision of food security to sustainable nutrition security. If our definition were to be applied, more people would be seen as food insecure, but this explicit linking of food insecurity to sustainable and equitable food systems would promote better solutions for all.

Better data is just the start

So, while current food insecurity rates may be shocking, they likely do not reflect the true scale of hunger and poor nutrition in this country. Our government only measures how much we eat, not whether what we eat is good for us, our communities, and our environment.

We need better tools to measure food insecurity, and we need to use them in a way that helps us understand the scale of emergencies as well as chronic trends. Many people are only food secure because of the hard work of employees and volunteers in food banks and food pantries, and the critical yet insufficient assistance provided through SNAP. If we know how many households are affected, we can make better-informed decisions that will adequately support food banks as well as SNAP and other programs.

And yet, knowing the scale of the problem does not automatically lead to solving the root causes of food insecurity. We live in a country where corporations get away with paying food workers and farmworkers so little that they have difficulty feeding themselves. Solutions must therefore be systemic and require that the federal government hold corporations accountable. We need better wages and working conditions for those who produce our food, and access to sustainable, nutritious food for all.