Introduction: Hunger in the U.S.

Food insecurity is the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. Read on for more information on domestic hunger, federal food assistance programs and the right to food.


Hunger and Food Insecurity

In a country as wealthy as the United States, it is alarming that many people still struggle to feed their families. In 2013, 17.5 million households (14.3 percent of all households) were food insecure. These households, at some time during the year, had difficulty providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. The percentage of of food insecure households remained essentially unchanged from 2012, but food insecurity decreased slightly from 2011 rates of 17.9 million households (14.9 percent of all households). That said, those households facing the most extreme end of food insecurity and hunger remains among the highest levels observed since nationally representative food security surveys were initiated in 1995 at 6.8 million households (5.6 percent of all households).


Food insecurity is the lack of access to enough affordable, nutritious food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources. Food insecurity and the undernourishment that accompanies it have far-reaching physical, emotional and psychological effects. It also undermines the economic foundation and social fabric that holds communities together.

The U.S. has the highest wage inequality of any industrialized nation, and people can work full time at a minimum wage job and still not make enough to cover the basic costs of living. Families in this situation often have to choose between food and other basic necessities such as rent, health care or utility bills.

“Every penny I make goes towards medical bills [for my daughter]… It breaks my heart, because sometimes my daughter will ask for a box of cornflakes and I can’t afford it.” 
from “Small talks for big change: conversations around getting and growing good food” by the Community Food Security Center of the Community Food Bank of Tucson, AZ

Federal Food Programs as a First Response

The government does provide a safety net in the form of federal food programs. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was first introduced in the 1940s, and the Food Stamp Program was enacted nationwide in 1974. The Food Stamp Program, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides low-income households with a debit card that can be used for groceries. The program provided assistance to 40.1 percent of food-insecure households in 2011. From the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), the various federal food programs are essential to the health of millions of Americans.

Unfortunately, federal food programs face many challenges. The main challenge is the near-constant threat of government cuts. Not everyone who is eligible for federal food assistance currently receives it, and for those who do receive assistance, it is not always sufficient. Additionally, there are hungry people who for a variety of reasons, ranging from immigration status to income level, do not currently qualify for federal food programs. Each of these challenges points to the need for a strengthened government safety net to prevent hunger and food insecurity. Further evidence can be seen in a rising dependence on the emergency feeding system of food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens in the U.S.


The Institutionalization of Emergency Feeding

In the decades that followed the Great Depression, soup kitchens and food pantries addressed the immediate food needs of those who had fallen upon unexpected hardship. In the 1980s, an economic recession and sweeping cuts in both federal and state spending pushed millions of Americans into poverty. The number of soup kitchens and food pantries skyrocketed, and many providers found that instead of helping people pull through emergency situations, they were replacing government-sponsored programs for those living in poverty. The emergency feeding system was becoming permanent and there was less impetus to address poverty as the underlying source of both hunger and food insecurity. Today, the demand for emergency services continues to rise faster than the soup kitchens and food pantries can keep pace, and the prevailing system of emergency food is no longer adequate or sustainable.


A Long-Term Vision of Food Security

With the recognition that emergency food alone will never solve the problem of hunger, anti-hunger advocates began to embrace a long-term vision of food security in the mid-1990s. This vision included, but was not limited to: a living wage; a strengthened and improved government safety net in the form of federal food programs and other basic benefits; increased access to nutritious foods in underserved communities and community-based programs that promote self-reliance. Over the years, the concept of community food security has become increasingly integral to this long-term vision.

Community food security refers to the ability of all people to access a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice. It is unique in its focus on the entire food system from the farms where food is grown to the tables where it is eaten.

This has allowed the community food security movement to build alliances which can confront not just food insecurity and dependence on emergency food, but also the problems facing the entire food system. Discussions of domestic hunger and federal food programs are inherently relevant to other issues – both assets and challenges – that define our food system. The Food Security Learning Center is dedicated to exploring these topics and their intersections, such as nutrition educationfamily farms, rural poverty, and local and regional food systems.


Reshaping Federal Food Programs

There are numerous models for integrating community food security perspectives into federal food programs. Examples include efforts to encourage the use of SNAP at local farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms. Subsidized school meals serving local and regional food are another opportunity to encourage partnerships that further community food security. As author and activist Jan Poppendieck advocates, school meals have enormous potential to create markets for healthy, sustainably-grown farm products. Poppendieck is at the forefront of the movement to make school meals free and universal for all public school students.

We need to continue building these movements that reflect the shift in the anti-hunger arena from food charity to food justice.

Ensuring the Basic Right to Food

The United Nations defines the right to food as having regular access to food that is culturally appropriate for the consumer, ensures physical and mental well-being, and supports a dignified life. However, the United States is one of only two countries that do not officially recognize food as a basic human right. The UDSA defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” While both the international and national definitions speak to the importance of overall physical and mental health, the U.S. definition does not use a human rights framework and does not imply government intervention. Approaching food security with a human rights framework addresses the social and economic determinants of food security, provides a way for those who are most affected to participate in public discourse, and provides a way for the public to hold the government accountable.

A human rights framework is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, and it emphasizes the need to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to food. To respect the right to food is not to interfere with an individual’s ability to acquire food. To protect the right to food is to make sure that others do not interfere with an individual’s access to food. To fulfill the right to food is to develop or sustain socioeconomic environments that support food access and to provide emergency food assistance when necessary. This approach differs from the current U.S. model in that it emphasizes community-based solutions, whereas the U.S. government mainly focuses on safety nets like SNAP, WIC and emergency feeding programs. These safety net programs are vital, but they do not address the root causes of food insecurity in the United States. Adopting a human rights approach to food security would support the strategies already in place in the U.S. at the individual, household and community levels.



Updated 9/2014