There are many reasons behind the increasingly urgent calls to reform our global food system, but one of the biggest concerns food security. As defined by the World Food Programme, being “food secure” means having consistent access (both physically and economically) to enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy and active life. Unfortunately, it seems clear that the global food system is far from meeting these needs for the entirety of the world’s population: according to statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 1 billion people do not have access to sufficient calories, and more than 2 billion people consume a diet that lacks sufficient nutrients.
Furthermore, while food security challenges are often discussed in the context of developing economies, these problems affect every nation in the world, emerging and industrialized alike. For example, did you know that in the United States, 12.3% of households (more than 41 million people) were “food insecure” in 2016? If you didn’t, and you’d like to get a better understanding of food security challenges in America, here are four things you should know:
The definitions of “food security” are set by the US Department of Agriculture.
The USDA identifies four different levels of food security, which it monitors through a regular household survey. The language currently used to describe these categories was introduced in 2006 in response to recommendations made by an expert panel; however, the assessment criteria for household food security did not change, so pre- and post-2006 food security categories are still directly comparable even though the terminology is different. The four food security levels are as follows:
High food security (previously labelled “Food security”)—Households with high food security have no problems consistently accessing adequate food and no anxiety about their ability to do so.
Marginal food security (previously labelled “Food security”)—Households in this category typically report one or two occurrences of food shortages in the house or anxiety over food sufficiency; however, the quantity, quality, and variety of household food is not substantially reduced.
Low food security (previously labelled “Food insecurity without hunger”)—While households at this food security level do not typically need to reduce their food intake, the quality, variety, and desirability of their diet is reduced or limited.
Very low food security (previously labelled “Food insecurity with hunger”)—This level of food security is characterized by multiple occurrences of disrupted eating patterns and/or reduced food intake affecting one or more members of the household, usually due to a lack of money or other resources for food.
Food security is a challenge for households with children.
While food security issues affect all kinds of individuals and households, food security can be a particular challenge for households with children. While 12.3% of all households experienced low food security or very low food security in 2016, the rate of low food security among households with children was significantly higher, at 16.5% (this is the average rate for all types of households with children; rates are much higher for households headed by a single parent). However, it’s also important to note that, for more than half of these food-insecure households with children, the food security issues only affected the adults of the household, meaning that the adults made the choice to prioritize the children’s food security above their own.
The Great Recession sharply increased food security challenges.
The economic crisis that swept the US and the world in 2008 had a significant effect on the levels of food security and insecurity in America. After the onset of the “Great Recession,” rates of low food security sharply increased across all household types: while 11% of households experienced low or very low food insecurity from 2005 to 2007, this figure reached 14.6% in 2008 and remained at this level through the end of 2010. Today, even though the economy has been improving, rates of food insecurity have still not returned to their pre-recession levels.
Food security challenges are not just about poverty.
It’s easy to equate food insecurity with poverty, and while the two conditions are certainly linked, statistics show us that the situation is more complex than that. While food insecurity does decline as household income grows, it is nevertheless dispersed surprisingly widely over the income distribution. For example, according to 2014 data, a large share of households that experience low or very low levels of food security have incomes above the federal poverty level (FPL): one-third of all food-insecure households have incomes one to two times greater than the FPL, and another third have incomes more than two times greater. (However, as reported by the economic research group The Hamilton Project, these “higher” incomes unfortunately have the effect of making many food-insecure households ineligible for federal food support programs.) But very low food security is still strongly concentrated among economically struggling households: the poorest households, living on less than half of the FPL, report the highest rate of very low food security.