More Than One in Seven U.S. Households Experienced Food Insecurity Last Year

Blog Post
Sept. 5, 2013

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service released its latest annual report on the state of household food security in the U.S. The report documents the prevalence and severity of food insecurity throughout 2012 and contains data on household spending on food, participation in nutrition assistance programs, and strategies families used to cope with food insecurity.

Prevalence of Food Insecurity 

Approximately 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children lived in food insecure households in 2012. According to the USDA definition of food insecurity, this means a full 49 million Americans lived in households that struggled to access enough food due to a lack of resources last year. Forty-nine million. 49,000,000 people lived in food insecure households in 2012. I'm repeating these numbers to ensure the magnitude of this crisis is made plain. (And as Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out, "the data likely understate food insecurity because they don’t include homeless individuals or families.")

Disappointingly, but sadly not surprisingly given the ongoing high rates of poverty and un- and underemployment, "the prevalence of food insecurity has been essentially unchanged since 2008," the report explains. While the food security rate is unacceptably high, it’s important to note that the depth of hardship stemming from a prolonged recession and sluggish recovery was actually mitigated by the responsiveness of our social safety net – most notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps). As CBPP has documented in detail, SNAP closely follows the poverty rate, which means the program saw appropriate and needed growth over the past few years as the poverty rate grew.

While Americans of all ages, races, and family structures may face food insecurity, there are persistent gaps in the prevalence of food insecurity among certain demographic groups that have remained relatively consistent over time. Check out the chart below which shows the rate of food insecurity among white non-Hispanic, black non-Hispanic, and Hispanic households (who may be of any race) over the past three years.

Households of color in the U.S. consistently experience rates of food insecurity more than twice that of white households, a phenomenon that points to broader forms of racial inequality, including (but by no means limited to) ongoing disparities in unemployment and access to living wage job opportunities.

Household Spending on Food

In 2012, the median U.S. household spent $50 per week per person on food – or 16% more than what the USDA has estimated is the minimum cost for an adequate and nutritious diet. The so-called “Thrifty Food Plan” (TFP) is the measurement the USDA uses to determine benefit levels for SNAP. However, many have criticized the TFP as a "low-ball" estimate for the true cost of an adequate and healthy diet, which makes it all the more troubling that households living below the poverty line and even below 185 percent of the poverty line are spending less per week than the TFP. Households living in poverty in 2012 spent about $35 per person per week. That averages out to $1.67 per meal.

Nutrition Assistance Programs

About 59 percent of households experiencing food insecurity in 2012 participated in one of the three largest federal nutrition programs. These programs are SNAP, the National School Lunch Program, and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). As Stacy Dean from CBPP points out, the depth and severity of these latest food insecurity figures stand in stark contrast to the tone of the legislative conversation about funding for these programs. Dean notes that proposed cuts to SNAP or other nutrition assistance programs "would inevitably mean more severe hardship across America." Moreover, as we’ve written, the particular form the cuts would take would put families’ long-term financial security at risk by eliminating their ability to maintain emergency savings.

Coping with Food Insecurity

The USDA acknowledges that families use varied and creative strategies to cope with their experiences with food insecurity. They cut back on their expenses (even necessities like rent or medical care), navigate complex application processes to participate in federal nutrition assistance programs, seek out help from extended family or friends, rely on various forms of credit, and go to emergency food providers like food banks.

As we’ve written in the past, this is one of the key reasons that assets matter so much: even small asset holdings can help families manage the ups and downs of an unpredictable economy and the accompanying financial instability that introduces to their daily life.

It’s easy to get lost in the statistics, but food insecurity takes a huge toll on the social, economic, and physical well-being of both adults and children, often necessitating huge personal sacrifices and trade-offs. Tianna Gaines-Turner, a mother of three from Philadelphia, wrote a piece this week for The Hill that captures this toll.

I work part-time for a childcare provider at a recreation center making about $10 an hour, and my husband works behind the deli counter at a grocery store making $8 an hour. We have tried but haven't been able to find full-time jobs, so our incomes go up and down at the whims of our employers.

Despite our hard work, we rely on government assistance.  But when our income temporarily goes up because we are able to get work more hours, our Food Stamp benefits get cut. And a few months later, when our companies choose to reduce our hours at their own convenience, we need to turn to Food Stamps again to feed our kids.

My three children have medical issues, including epilepsy and asthma. They need medications, but I constantly worry that the day that might come when they won't have their medicine because I can't afford the co-pay.

There have been times when my oldest son was sick or having seizures, and of course I wanted to be at the hospital to care for him and comfort him.  But that meant my husband had to stay home to take care of the twins, which meant neither one of us was working. Those months were the toughest because we had to make some rather tough choices:  do we pay the rent or do we pay the electricity bill?  And how do we buy food?

The past five years have been markedly challenging economic times for huge swaths of America. This is borne out in the latest food security figures here. We’ve seen a safety net respond effectively and efficiently to widespread hardship – but we’ve also seen unprecedented political attacks on these programs’ very existence. As Aleta Sprague pointed out recently, it’s not our public programs that are ensnaring people in poverty, but rather the dual effects of a rocky economy with policy choices that force “families to live at the margins.” Constricting and cutting SNAP is in direct opposition to the purported goals of our social safety net: to support people on a sustainable upward path out of poverty and to ensure a dignified standard of living for the most vulnerable members of society.