What is food insecurity?

When we envision hunger in the world, it is not usually our own communities that we picture. Yet reports from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tell a different story. Hunger not only exists in the U.S., it is common. Yet the United States is one of the largest agricultural exporters.

One helpful concept to understand hunger in the U.S. is food insecurity. Unlike hunger, food insecurity measures the difficulty a household has accessing food. Rather than focusing on how much food is consumed or the nutritional value of the food consumed, food insecurity is concerned with the ability of a household to access food reliably. Food insecurity points to two separate but related barriers to adequate food, the economic and the social.

Economic inaccessibility of food is clear and what is usually envisioned when thinking about hunger. If a household does not have enough income to purchase enough food then they suffer from food insecurity due to economic causes.

An example of a social cause of food insecurity is a family who find themselves living in a food desert. Food deserts are areas where nutritious food is not readily available for sale. This could be in an urban center where there are areas that do not have grocery stores and so most food must be purchased at restaurants or corner stores. These are both more expensive and often less nutritious than the fruits and vegetables that can be purchased in grocery stores. This means that a household that earns sufficient wages to purchase nutritious food might end up spending more money for less nutritious food and so still not receive adequate, nutritious food.

Food deserts do not exist only in urban centers. Rural communities can also be susceptible to insufficient demand to support larger grocery stores, requiring people to travel large distances in order to purchase reasonably-priced nutritious food. This need to travel decreases availability and increases the cost of food. So, contrary to what one might think, farming communities can still suffer from food insecurity.
Food deserts are not the only social cause of food insecurity. Other causes are the need to work multiple jobs. The need to work more than forty hours a week in order to earn enough to afford basic needs like food and housing can make it difficult to have both the time and money to acquire and prepare appropriate food.

Another social cause is the lack of culturally appropriate food. Communities of recent immigrants or groups with particular cultural foods may have a difficult time finding food that they are familiar with even in an area where food is available. This can compound with other causes to increase food insecurity.

While hunger does not always look the same around the world, it should be addressed wherever it is found. Legislation such as the Farm Bill effects the way that hunger is addressed through SNAP (formerly food stamps) and how food is produced through crop insurance and direct payments. Call on Congress to produce a just farm bill that will meet everyone’s needs, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Visit the Washington office website for more information about U.S. economic justice issues, including our hunger page.

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