In policy and social science hunger is defined as a condition in which a person, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient food to meet basic nutritional needs. While the vast majority of people who suffer from hunger live in developing countries, far too many people in America also suffer from hunger.
Determining how many are affected, though, is made more difficult because we do not have an exact way to identify who lacks food. A common proxy is the metric known as “very low food security.”
Since 1998 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has conducted surveys to determine levels of “food security”—access by people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. The survey includes a category for “very low food security” which identifies households in which the food intake of one or more members was reduced and eating patterns disrupted because of insufficient money and other resources for food. Households without children are classified as having very low food security if they report six or more food-insecure conditions. Households with children age 0-17 are classified as having very low food security if they report eight or more food-insecure conditions among adults and/or children.
On Wednesday the USDA released the latest report—and revealed an encouraging finding. In 2015, 5.0 percent of U.S. households (6.3 million households) had very low food security, down from 5.6 percent in 2014. Children were food insecure at times during the year in 7.8 percent of U.S. households with children (3.0 million households), down significantly from 9.4 percent in 2014.
The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably from state to state: Estimated prevalence of food insecurity in 2013-15 ranged from 8.5 percent in North Dakota to 20.8 percent in Mississippi. About 59 percent of food-insecure households in the survey also reported that in the previous month, they had participated in one or more of the three largest Federal nutrition assistance programs (SNAP; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and National School Lunch Program).
The rate of food insecurity spiked in 2008 (almost double the rate of 1998), and this is the first significant decline in very low food security since 2010. While this is still too many hungry people for a country as wealthy as the United States, the decline is a positive sign. As Mark J. Perry says, “the reduction in very low food security in 2015 shows, the best way to help most poor Americans is not increasing government benefits. More than anything else, a growing economy that creates jobs is the most important ingredient to helping struggling Americans.”