15.1 – The Issue of Food Security

Learning Objective

  • Share an example of a food and nutrition program that seeks to mitigate hunger in the United States.


Physiologically, hunger relates to appetite and is the body’s response to a need for nourishment. Through stomach discomfort or intestinal rumbling, the body alerts the brain that it requires food. This uneasy sensation is easily addressed with a snack or a full meal. However, the term “hunger” also relates to a weakened condition that is a consequence of a prolonged lack of food. People who suffer from this form of hunger typically experience malnourishment, along with poor growth and development.



Adequate food intake that meets nutritional requirements is essential to achieve a healthy, productive lifestyle. However, millions of people in North America, not to mention globally, go hungry and are malnourished each year due to a recurring and involuntary lack of food. 1

1 The Red, White, and Blue Hunger Wave; Children, Older Americans, and Working People Food Insecure in all Fifty States. A 2018 United States Hunger Atlas. Hunger Free America. https://www.hungerfreeamerica.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/2018%20United%20States%20Hunger%20Atlas_0.pdf. Published December 2018. Accessed June 13, 2019.


Key Hunger Statistics

Nearly 15 million working Americans can’t always afford food. One out of every six children lives with food insecurity.  Although this was a decrease from a historic high of more than one billion people in 2008, it is still an unbearable number. Every night, millions and millions of people go to sleep hungry due to a lack of the money or resources needed to acquire an adequate amount of food.An infograph on U S households with children by food security status of adults and children in 2018. The graph depicts that 88% of households are food-secure. seven percent of households are deemed food-insecure for children, and 13.9 percent of households are food insecure for adults.

Figure 15.2.1: U.S. households with children by food security status of adults and children, 2020. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/interactive-charts-and-highlights/#trends


Key Hunger Terms

A number of terms are used to categorize and classify hunger. Two key terms, food security, and food insecurity focus on status and affect hunger statistics. Another term, malnutrition, refers to the deficiencies that a hungry person experiences.


Food Security

Most American households are considered to be food secure, which means they have adequate access to food and consume enough nutrients to achieve a healthy lifestyle. However, a minority of US households experiences food insecurity at certain points during the year, which means their access to food is limited due to a lack of money or other resources.


Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is defined as not having adequate access to food that meets nutritional needs. According to the USDA, about 41 million people live in food-insecure households and have reported multiple indications of food access problems.  The difference between low and very low food security is that members of low insecurity households have reported problems of food access, but have reported only a few instances of reduced food intake if any.  African American and Hispanic households experience food insecurity at much higher rates than the national average.2

Households with limited resources employ a variety of methods to increase their access to adequate food. Some families purchase junk food and fast food—cheaper options that are also very unhealthy. Other families who struggle with food security supplement the groceries they purchase by participating in government assistance programs. They may also obtain food from emergency providers, such as food banks and soup kitchens in their communities.

You can hear Clancy Harrison, MS, RDN, FAND, a Penn State University alumnus, share her experiences regarding working in the area of food insecurity.

Video 15.1.1: The Shocking Truth About Food Insecurity | Clancy Cash Harrison | TEDxWilmingtonWomen
Author: TEDx Talks
Published on Dec 21, 2016

The Shocking Truth About Food Insecurity | Clancy Cash Harrison | TEDxWilmingtonWomen.  CC BY-NC-ND This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

2 Coleman-Jensen, A. et al. “Household Food Security in the United States in 2018.” US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-256(September 2018)Accessed June 13, 2019.



A person living in a food-insecure household may suffer from malnutrition, which results from a failure to meet nutrient requirements. This can occur as a result of consuming too little food or not enough key nutrients.  Even people who are overweight or obese can suffer from this kind of malnutrition if they eat foods that do not meet all of their nutritional needs.


At-Risk Groups

Worldwide, three main groups are most at risk of hunger: the rural poor in developing nations who also lack access to electricity and safe drinking water, the urban poor who live in expanding cities and lack the means to buy food, and victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural and man-made catastrophes. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.3 In the United States, there are additional subgroups that are at risk and are more likely than others to face hunger and malnutrition. They include low-income families and the working poor, who are employed but have incomes below the federal poverty level.

Senior citizens are also a major at-risk group. Many elderly people are frail and isolated, which affects their ability to meet their dietary requirements. In addition, many also have low incomes, limited resources, and difficulty purchasing or preparing food due to health issues or poor mobility. As a result, more than six million senior citizens in the United States face the threat of hunger.4

3 “Hunger: Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed June 13, 2019.

4 Meals on Wheels. “Our Vision and Mission.” Accessed June 13, 2019.


The Homeless

One of the groups that struggle with hunger are the millions of homeless people across North America. According to a recent study by the US Conference of Mayors, the majority of reporting cities saw an increase in the number of homeless families. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, ~13,500 individuals were homeless in PA in 2018. Hunger and homelessness often go hand-in-hand as homeless families and adults turn to soup kitchens or food pantries or resort to begging for food.



Rising hunger rates in the United States particularly affect children. Nearly one out of every six children, or 17.4  percent of all American children, lives in a food-insecure household and spends at least part of the year hungry.5 Hunger delays their growth and development and affects their educational progress because it is more difficult for hungry or malnourished students to concentrate in school. In addition, children who are undernourished are more susceptible to contracting diseases, such as measles, pneumonia, and malaria. https://www.worldhunger.org/world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/

A poster from the USDA about childhood hunger in america.

Figure 15.3.1 Childhood Hunger in America How USDA helps. CC Attribution 2.0.

Video 15.1.2: Going Hungry in America-Intersection with Health.
Author: Feeding America
Published on Jan 27, 2017

Learn more about hunger and health here.

5 Coleman-Jensen, A. et al. “Household Food Security in the United States in 2018.” US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-256 (September 2018)


Government Programs

The federal government has established a number of programs that work to alleviate hunger and ensure that many low-income families receive the nutrition they require to live a healthy life. A number of programs were strengthened by the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This legislation authorized funding and set the policy for several key core programs that provide a safety net for food-insecure children across the United States.


The Federal Poverty Level

The federal poverty level (FPL) is used to determine eligibility for food-assistance programs. This monetary figure is the minimum amount that a family would need to acquire shelter, food, clothing, and other necessities. It is calculated based on family size and is adjusted for annual inflation. Although many people who fall below the FPL are unemployed, the working poor can qualify for food programs and other forms of public assistance if their income is less than a certain percentage of the federal poverty level, along with other qualifications. Programs using the guidelines (or percentage multiples of the guidelines — for instance, 125 percent or 185 percent of the guidelines) in determining eligibility include Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. 6

6 U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines 2019. https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines Published February 1, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2019


USDA Food Assistance Programs

Government food and nutrition assistance programs that are organized and operated by the USDA work to increase food security. They provide low-income households with access to food, the tools for consuming a healthy diet, and education about nutrition. The USDA monitors the extent and severity of food insecurity via an annual survey. This contributes to the efficiency of food assistance programs as well as the effectiveness of private charities and other initiatives aimed at reducing food insecurity.


The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides monthly benefits for low-income households to purchase approved food items at authorized stores. Clients qualify for the program based on available household income, assets, and certain basic expenses. In March 2019, SNAP provided benefits to more than 36,000,000 participants in the United States.7 The average benefit was $121.00 per person, per month. The program provides Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT) which work similarly to a debit card. Clients receive a card with a certain allocation of money for each month that can be used only for food.

7 March 2019 Nutrition Assistance Programs Report. USDA. https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/data-files/march-performance-report-2019.pdf. Accessed June 14, 2019.


The Special, Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children

The Special, Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides food packages to pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as to infants and children up to age five, to promote adequate intake for healthy growth and development. Most state WIC programs provide vouchers that participants use to acquire supplemental packages at authorized stores. In 2019, WIC served about half of all infants born in the United States.8

8 https://www.fns.usda.gov/wic Accessed June 14, 2019.


The National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) ensure that children in elementary and middle schools receive at least one healthy meal each school day, or two if both the NSLP and SBP are provided. In FY 2018, schools served over 4.8 billion meals. Sixty-eight percent of the lunches served were free, and an additional 5.9 percent were provided at reduced prices.


Other Food-Assistance Programs for Children

Other government programs provide meals for children after school hours and during summer breaks. The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) offers meals and snacks at child-care centers, daycare homes, and after-school programs. Through CACFP, more than 3.2 million children and 112,000 adults receive nutritious meals and snacks each day.US Department of Agriculture. “Child & Adult Care Food Program.” Accessed June 14, 2019. The Summer Food Service Program provides meals to children during summer break. Sponsors include day camps and other recreation programs where at least half of the attendees live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level These and other programs help to fill in the gaps during the typical day of a food-insecure child.


The Head Start Program

Head Start is a health and development program for children ages three to five, from low-income families. The philosophy behind the organization is that early intervention can help address the educational, social, and nutritional deficiencies that children from lower-income families often experience. Launched in 1965, it is one of the longest-running, poverty-related programs in the United States. Today, Head Start programs include education, meals, snacks, and access to other social services and health guidance.


Other Forms of Assistance

Other forms of assistance include locally-operated charitable organizations, such as food pantries (PSU Lion Pantry)and food banks, which acquire food from local manufacturers, retailers, farmers, and community members to give to low-income families. Neighborhood soup kitchens provide meals to the homeless and other people in need. These and other organizations are run by nonprofit groups, as well as religious institutions, to provide an additional safety net for those in need of food.


Meals on Wheels

An organization known as Meals on Wheels delivers meals to elderly people who have difficulty buying or making their own food because of poor health or limited mobility. It is the oldest and largest program dedicated to addressing the nutritional needs of senior citizens. Each day, Meals on Wheels volunteers deliver more than one million meals across the United States. The first Meals on Wheels program began in Philadelphia in the 1950s. In the decades since, the organization has expanded into a vast network that serves the elderly in all fifty states and several US territories. Today, Meals on Wheels remains committed to ending hunger among the senior citizen community.


Figure 15.3.2 U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Katrina Heikkinen [Public domain] Clara Donney, (right), a Meals on Wheels recipient of a Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the Great Falls Community Food Bank, is all smiles as Airman 1st Class Courtney Taylor, a customer service technician with the 341st Comptroller Squadron, delivers her meal.


Key Takeaways

  • Around the world, nearly one billion people suffer the effects of constant hunger.
  • Key terms related to hunger include food security, which means having continual access to safe, sufficient, nutritious food, and food insecurity, which means not having continual access to safe, sufficient, nutritious food.
  • There are a number of groups at risk for hunger, including the unemployed and underemployed, poor families, the elderly, and the homeless.
  • The United States has a number of federal and state programs, as well as local charities, which provide assistance and education for people who fall into the category of food insecurity.


Discussion Starter

  1. Do you believe there are enough government programs currently in place to address the problem of hunger? Why or why not? If not, what additional solutions would you recommend?


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Nutrition 100 Nutritional Applications for a Healthy Lifestyle Copyright © by Lynn Klees and Alison Borkowska is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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