Diana Cuy Castellanos
Nancy E. Roman
How to Find Food Security Support and Hunger Assistance Resources
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Diana Cuy Castellanos
Nancy E. Roman
Food insecurity is at an all-time high in the United States, partially due to a spike in lost wages resulting from COVID-19. Many families are just one paycheck or a short time period away from not being able to secure adequate food for themselves and their families.
For these people and others who may find themselves in a food insecurity situation in the future, hunger assistance programs and resources are available. There are organizations and people who can help you develop a food security plan so you don't reach the point of hunger. Learn more about food insecurity, who is experiencing it and where you and your family can turn to if you find yourself facing this challenge.
Food Insecurity and Its Impact on Society
Food insecurity occurs when an individual or family lacks access to nutritional food necessary to maintain health and well-being due to financial insecurity. Food insecurity refers to people not having access to food that fits their dietary needs and sustains their health. Conversely, food security occurs when people have access to the healthy foods required to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.
What Is Food Security and Insecurity?
Food insecurity occurs when an individual or family lacks access to nutritional food necessary to maintain health and well-being due to financial insecurity. Food insecurity refers to people not having access to food that fits their dietary needs. Conversely, food security occurs when people have access to the variety of nutritional foods required to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture measures food insecurity through a Food Security Supplement survey sent out to roughly 45,000 households with the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. They then determine the levels of food insecurity across the nation.
What Defines Food Insecurity?
The USDA defines ranges of food insecurity to better gauge the hunger status in the U.S. This range is broken down into three levels.
A household that is food insecure faces uncertainty at times during the year when it comes to having or acquiring enough food to meet the entire family's needs. This can include households with low food security or very low food security. In 2019, 10.5% of U.S. households were food insecure at some time.
Low food security
A household with low food security avoided food insecurity and disruption to their eating habits and patterns through different strategies such as reducing food intake, eating a more varied diet or participating in federal food assistance programs or community food pantries. In 2019, 6.4% of U.S. households had low food insecurity.
Very low food security
A household where one or more household members' eating habits were affected and reduced during the year due to financial instability. In 2019, 4.1% of U.S. households had very low food insecurity at some point during the year.
The 4 Pillars of Food Security
The USDA also defines food security into four pillars to further understand the U.S.'s hunger conditions.
How “available” is food regarding supply, production, stock levels and even net trade? Things like disease, pests, extreme weather and improper storage can all affect the availability of food.
How accessible is food in relation to proximity to people’s homes and affordable for purchase? Everyone deserves access to an adequate supply of food.
How nutrient is the food that individuals have access to? Food should supply sufficient energy and nutrition, resulting from good feeding practices, food preparation and diet diversity.
How stable is someone’s access to food? Adequate access to food should be consistent every single day without interruption.
Where Is Food Insecurity Most Common in the US?
While food insecurity affects households across the U.S., geography, income and community development are highly impactful on which states and counties are more affected than others. Unfortunately, there are patterns among the most commonly affected people and regions.
Households that earn an income 185% percent below the poverty line are more likely to face food insecurities than other households. In 2019, the income of $25,926 for a family of four was considered right at the Federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Also, households with children headed by single parents and Black and Hispanic households are at greater risk of facing food shortages.
Children and seniors are the greatest communities at risk for food insecurity. Children face food insecurity because they cannot fend for themselves and earn an income. Seniors are susceptible to food insecurity because they may have limited finances and have to choose between purchasing food or other important bills. Other communities commonly threatened include rural, Black and Latino communities.
Mississippi tops the list for the most food insecure state in the U.S. Right behind it is Washington D.C., Nevada, Louisiana and New York. However, according to United Way, COVID-19 has shifted which states are currently experiencing food insecurities.
What Are the Economic Consequences of Food Insecurity in the Community
Americans not having access to nutritional food is a costly battle that the country has been fighting for many years. The shortages that individuals, especially children, are experiencing today will have a big impact on the future. Nationally, child hunger costs the U.S. economy $28 billion a year because children who are not properly nourished do not perform well in school and require long-term health care spending. Child hunger also leads to a loss of $19.2 billion in lifetime earnings due to absenteeism in high school and the need to repeat grades. Outside of child hunger, food insecurity, in general, leads to increased mortality, disease and disability, which directly inflates health care costs to cope with this shift in personal health and abilities.
COVID-19 and Food Security
Millions of Americans have found themselves out of a job as a result of COVID-19. There's no denying there is a direct correlation between the pandemic and the sudden rise in food insecurity. In 2019, before the pandemic, 10.5% of U.S. households or around 35 million Americans were facing food insecurities. Today, that number has increased to nearly 50 million people and children, according to a USDA spokesperson, and is predicted to continue to grow as the coronavirus continues to spread.
The issue lies in the coping mechanisms that households typically adopt to maintain food access and the limitations the pandemic has put on those mechanisms.
- Many children receive a free meal at school but are no longer attending school in person.
- Members of urban households may need to travel long distances and rely on public transportation to shop at multiple grocery stores for the best prices. The pandemic has made this a riskier and even more difficult task.
- Before COVID-19, families and seniors could seek resources from food pantries and soup kitchens, but social distancing makes it difficult to share meals or congregate.
- The habit of food hoarding by individuals with resources to do so leaves families with low income unable to afford to buy groceries in bulk without access to consistent food supplies.
While many provisions have been made by the Congress' Families First Coronavirus Act to expand federal nutrition assistance programs, the nation has a long way to go to recover from the impact of COVID on food insecurity.
Financial Literacy and Food Insecurity
Income tends to be negatively correlated with food security. If a household has a low or inconsistent income, it's a major barrier to purchasing food. However, access to food is not only a problem among the poor, which leads some to believe that there may be a correlation between financial literacy and food insecurity as well.
Financial literacy, which is determined by someone's knowledge of basic financial concepts, can be linked to food insecurity in many ways. Those who have higher financial literacy are more likely to budget and save money, have higher retirement savings and generally have less difficulty making financial decisions. In turn, households with higher financial literacy are less likely to find themselves in a financial situation where they cannot afford food. However, this does not directly correlate with financial literacy in every case of food insecurity but shows how income alone does not explain the problem. A household can make a good income but not have the knowledge or skills to budget and still face hunger challenges.
Getting Help: Hunger Assistance
With the influx of challenges brought on by COVID-19 and the fact that there are more factors than income that can lead to food insecurity, many individuals are at risk of facing hunger issues at any time. Knowing where and how to get help is the first step in fighting hunger.
3 Ways to Identify Food Insecurity
Someone suffering from nutrient deficiency will have puffy skin or look swollen and may have chronically cracked lips and dry, itchy eyes. Being underweight is not a good telltale sign of food insecurity. Some individuals facing food shortages are actually overweight because they are not receiving healthy and balanced nutrition.
Behaviors and conversations
Especially in children, someone who is anxious or continually talking about where their next meal will come from is most likely facing food insecurity. Children who arrive at school early to take advantage of breakfast, indulge quickly in their meals or frequently ask for more food could also be facing hunger issues.
If you're suspicious of someone's access to food, you can ask them about the types of food they eat and what they had for their last meal. You can even ask if they worry about having enough food. This is especially beneficial for children.
Most communities have a variety of programs and services available locally that individuals can contact for assistance. Even if the assistance is through a federal program, local churches, charities and organizations implement these services throughout communities. An easy place to start is by using the "near me" map feature on Google. Many national organizations will also offer a local search on their website, like the find your local food bank search by Feeding America. You can also dial 211 to get assistance on finding local programs.
Federal and Government Programs
No matter why a family struggles with food insecurity, the following federal and government-funded programs can help families have consistent food access. Additional assistance may be available locally within your community.
Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
WIC is geared towards helping low-income pregnant and postpartum women and infants and children of low-income women with various health-related resources. WIC provides vouchers for groceries, education, breastfeeding support and referrals for additional services through grants given to states. To qualify for WIC, you must meet one of the categories mentioned above, be a resident of the state where you're applying, meet income limits and be nutritionally at risk. You can apply for a WIC program through your state or local WIC agency.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
SNAP is more commonly known as food stamps and stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It provides families with an Electronic Benefit Transfer card, similar to an ATM card, to purchase food. Benefits are automatically loaded onto the card each month and administered by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. Most households must be no more than 130% above the poverty limit to qualify for SNAP benefits. You can apply for SNAP through your local office.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
TANF stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and is available for families with low and very low incomes. TANF provides cash for families to meet basic needs. To be eligible, an individual must have a child that is 18 years old or younger, be pregnant or be 18 years or younger and the head of household. You can apply for TANF through your local state agency.
While WIC, SNAP and TANF are the largest and most successful financial supplemental programs for individuals, most families will find relief and assistance through 'backpack' programs funded by the USDA, soup kitchens, home-delivered meals services like Meals on Wheels, local food banks and pantries. You can find meals for kids through USDA's website.
What Is Being Done to Address Food Insecurity?
Even though food insecurity is an ongoing issue, many efforts are being made to help fight this problem. From federal assistance programs to efforts being made to reduce food waste and interventions to identify those at risk, there are ways that we can all contribute to the food insecurity issues we’re facing in the United States.
Food Insecurity Policy
Currently, the policies being implemented to help with food security are mostly federal assistance programs. The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service's 15 nutrition assistance programs directly address food insecurity. According to a spokesperson for the USDA, although Congress previously provided much-needed relief for Americans, President Biden recognized that the millions of Americans currently facing food insecurity needed more help. The American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021, included over $12 billion to address the hunger crisis in America that has become exacerbated by the pandemic.
How Can We Stop Food Insecurity?
Stopping food insecurity starts with prioritizing the problem. "Food is an unbelievably under-leveraged tool in society. It's so important to our health, our children's ability to work in school and building our immune systems against COVID-19," said Nancy Roman, the president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America. "But society has to prioritize it as a problem to solve in order for it to be fixed."
Nancy explains that she believes there's a two-step process to stopping food insecurity.
Provide access to food for long-term change
The first step is for those who provide access to foods to ensure that they provide it for an amount of time that helps result in long-term change. It has been proven that a family must have a healthy diet change for 12 weeks for it to change habits long-term.
Engage leaders and organizations
The second step is to engage entrepreneurs and businesses in solving the food insecurity problem by creative solutions using advancements in technology and ways to deliver food. "I believe people should be able to sell healthy foods for a profit in underserved neighborhoods," explained Roman. "There's a pent-up demand for good food. Sometimes you hear people say that those in disadvantaged communities don't want to buy good food, but that is not my experience. We have to make more food widely available and bring it back to neighborhoods that have been shut out. That's how you really start making steps towards stopping food insecurity."
How Can We Improve Food Security?
Continuing to create new ways to and enhancing existing access to food is key in improving food security. According to a spokesperson for the USDA, food banks play a crucial role in combating food insecurity. In a typical year, the Emergency Food Assistance Program receives roughly $300 million in food funds and $100 million in administrative funds through regular appropriations. Since the start of the pandemic, an additional $1.25 billion in funding has been authorized through coronavirus relief bills.
We can also work collectively to help remove barriers to make it easier for those who do not have access to healthy foods to receive good food.
- If you know a family in your neighborhood does not have transportation means, you can offer to take them to the grocery store when you go.
- You can deliver food to senior centers or volunteer to drive seniors to grocery stores.
- If you have children in school, you can learn about the food assistance programs and advocate to enhance them.
A lot of good work has been done to fight food insecurity up to this point. Businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals can look at what's been done and build upon that to increase the resources available.
Demographics Susceptible to Food Insecurity
Certain demographics are at higher risk of food insecurity than others. Households living below the poverty line and single-mother households are the most at-risk, but they're not the only ones.
Who Is Most at Risk of Food Insecurity?
On average, 10.5% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2019. When determining who is most at risk of food insecurity the USDA looks for groups who had a higher than 10.5% rate.
The following groups experienced the highest percentages of food insecurity.
- 13.6 % of households with children
- 14.5% of households with children under the age of 6
- 28.7% of households with children headed by a single woman
- 15.4% of households with children headed by a single man
- 13% of women living alone
- 12.8% of men living alone
- 19.1% of Black, non-Hispanic households
- 15.6% of Hispanic households
- 27.6% of households with incomes below 185% of the poverty threshold
Single mothers, children, seniors and those living in rural communities are the most at risk of food insecurity. Seniors are often forced with having to choose between food and medical care or other important bills. Children who live in poverty not only struggle to get access to food but are often provided non-nutritious food because it is more affordable. For those living in rural communities finding adequate transportation to the grocery store can be a major factor in food security.
The poverty line is $25,750 for a family of four in the U.S. Any household with an income that is above 185% of this number is food insecure. This means that households of four who make less than $47,300 are most likely food insecure.
Geography and Food Deserts
Food deserts are neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources. To define food deserts, the USDA considers the distance to a store that contains healthy food, individual resources such as income or transportation access and the average income of a neighborhood.
Expert Insight on Food Insecurity
To learn more about food insecurity issues in our country, MoneyGeek spoke with several industry leaders and academics. They provided insight into how COVID-19 has impacted U.S. households' access to food and where those who do not qualify for federal assistance can go for help.
- We know that COVID-19 has greatly impacted food insecurity. What efforts are being made, local or nationally, to help families?
- Where can those who don’t qualify for federal assistance go for help?
President and CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America
Executive Director, Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation
Assistant Professor, University of California, San Francisco in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
Cookbook Author and Former Food Journalist and Columnist
Assistant Professor of Dietetics and Nutrition, University of Dayton
Resources for Financial Support and Food Security
Whether you’re facing food insecurity or simply want to know how you can better educate yourself and help those in your community, the following resources are of value.
- American Academy of Pediatrics: A report on how to better promote food insecurity for children.
- Commodity Supplemental Food Program: A supplemental diet program geared at persons aged 60 years or older provides people with low incomes with nutritious USDA foods.
- Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit: A toolkit that provides standardized measurement tools for determining and assessing aspects of food insecurity in communities.
- Feeding America: A hunger-relief organization that partners with more than 200 food banks and food rescue programs.
- Foodbank Locator: A searchable database of food banks located across the U.S.
- Healthy People: Data-driven objectives for the general public designed to improve health and well-being over the next decade.
- Meals on Wheels: A community-based senior nutrition program that helps provide meals through delivery to seniors.
- National Association of State Departments of Agriculture: A nonprofit association that represents elected commissioners, secretaries and directors of the department of agriculture throughout all fifty states in the U.S. Their goal is to cultivate and enhance American agriculture through partnerships, public engagement and policy.
- National Endowment for Financial Education: An independent organization working to improve the effectiveness of financial education. Provided education is free to access through the website.
- National School Lunch Program: A federally assisted meal program that provides healthy, balanced and low-cost meals to private and public schools.
- No Kid Hungry: This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending child hunger that partners with companies, restaurants, charitable foundations and ordinary Americans to help feed children.
- School Breakfast Program: Allows states to provide nonprofit breakfast programs in schools through a federally funded reimbursement program.
- Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program: Provides seniors with low income with access to healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, honey and herbs through partnerships with farmers' markets.
- Summer Food Service Program: A state-funded program where children under 18 years of age can receive free meals and snacks.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Assistance Programs: An extensive list of various food assistance programs.
- Why Hunger: A database of emergency food providers and community-based organizations helping to end food insecurity.
About Sara East
- Feeding America. "Hunger in America." Accessed March 19, 2021.
- Feeding America. "The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020." Accessed March 19, 2021.
- Food Security Information for Action. "An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Food Security." Accessed March 9, 2021.
- Iowa Food Bank Association. "Impacts of Hunger on the Economy." Accessed March 10, 2021.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. "COVID-19 and Food Insecurity: an Uneven Patchwork of Responses." Accessed March 12, 2021.
- United States Department of Agriculture. "Definitions of Food Security." Accessed March 10, 2021.
- United States Department of Agriculture. "Key Statistics & Graphics." Accessed March 10, 2021.
- United States Department of Agriculture. "USDA: Food Access Research Atlas Documentation." Accessed March 13, 2021.
- World Food Program USA. "The 4 Pillars of Food Security." Accessed March 12, 2021.