Feeding Hungry Bellies: What is Food Insecurity?
The term “food security” means that people at all times have access to enough food to lead an active, healthy life. Anything less than that is referred to as food insecurity. In 2012, 14.5% of households in the United States were food insecure at some point during the year. That’s 49 million people and about 8.3 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Food insecurity is not the same as hunger. Households (or regions) have food insecurity. Individuals have hunger—discomfort, weakness or pain that comes as the result of prolonged, involuntary lack of food. The USDA categorizes food insecurity into two categories:
- Low food security (formerly called “food insecurity without hunger”): Food quality, variety, or desirability is reduced but the amount of food eaten is not decreased.
- Very low food security (formerly called “food insecurity with hunger”): Eating patterns are disrupted and the amount of food eaten is reduced.
People in households with low or very low food insecurity might:
- Worry that food will run out before they have money to buy more
- Buy food, but not enough to last until they have money to buy more
- Be unable to afford a balanced meal
- Cut meal size or skip meals because of money
- Eat less than they should because of money
Very low food insecurity might also mean people don’t eat even though they are hungry and/or don’t eat for an entire day because there was not enough money for food.
The National Nutrition Safety Net is a combination of government-funded programs and community-based initiatives to increase food security across the United States. A variety of Nutrition Assistance Programs are available:
- Food Stamps—vouchers that can be exchanged for food for low-income households.
- National School Breakfast and Lunch—nutritious meals at school, available free or at low cost to students from lower-income homes.
- Summer Food Service—nutritious meals for school-age children at specific qualifying sites in low-income areas.
- Child and Adult Care Food—nutritious meals and snacks for children and older adults at qualifying day care centers (e.g., care homes, child care centers, adult day care centers for elderly and impaired, shelters for homeless children and after-school programs).
- Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—a voucher and education program for low-income pregnant women, postpartum mothers and children under 5 years old.
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations—an alternative to Food Stamps for low income households on Indian reservations or Native Americans living near reservations.
- The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)—a program that provides commodities food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and other charitable organizations that prepare or distribute the food to those in need.
- Farmers Market Nutrition Program—provides fresh produce to those at risk of poor nutrition.
- Special Milk Program—provides milk to children at schools, camp and other childcare locations that don’t have any other federally-sponsored meal programs
A variety of other programs designed to meet specific needs or population are also available.
- United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Food Security in the U.S.
- United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, How Many People Lived in Food-Insecure Households?
- United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, The National Nutrition Safety Net.
- United States Department of Agriculture, Household Food Security in the United States in 2012.
- World Health Organization, Food Security.
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