Childhood Food Insecurity in the US

Written by Carly Hallman

Facts about food insecurity in America can be startling and difficult to face, but it’s important that we do. It’s both horrific and bewildering that child food insecurity and obesity would be so intrinsically mixed, that there’s such a lack of nutritious, healthy food for America’s youth for them to succeed in school and in life. Meanwhile, millions of dollars of food waste in the US is being produced every single year.

Childhood Food Insecurity in the US infographic

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A Glimpse at Childhood Food Insecurity in the U.S. Transcript

The Absurd Nature of Childhood Hunger in America

12.9 million kids are living in food-insecure households in America.1

That’s about one in six children.2

About 27% of food-insecure homes earn too much to qualify for food assistance programs: WIC’s threshold is 185% of the poverty line.

47% earn too much for SNAP, which has a threshold of 130% of the poverty line.5

5 out of 6 kids who rely on discounted school meals aren’t getting discounted meals in the summer.2

The amount of food insecurity depends on where you are.4,5

State State Rate of Food Insecurity and Very Low Food Security Child Food-Insecurity Rate Worst County Worst County % of Overall Food Insecurity
Alaska 12.7% 19.6% Kusilvak Borough 27.3%
Alabama 18.1% 24.1% Wilcox County 32.3%
Arkansas 17.5% 25.0% Phillips County 30.3%
Arizona 14.6% 24.0% Apache County 25.5%
California 11.8% 20.7% Siskiyou County 18.4%
Colorado 10.3% 16.5% Dolores County 14.9%
Connecticut 12.3% 16.7% New Haven County 12.4%
Washington, DC 11.4% 23.6% /td>

Delaware 10.8% 17.3% Kent County 13.0%
Florida 12.0% 22.7% Gadsden County 23.9%
Georgia 14.0% 23.2% Clay County 28.4%
Hawaii 8.7% 20.1% Hawaii County 12.8%
Iowa 10.7% 16.7% Story County 15.5%
Idaho 12.1% 17.7% Madison County 19.8%
Illinois 11.1% 17.3% Alexander County 23.4%
Indiana 15.2% 19.1% Marion County 18.3%
Kansas 14.5% 19.2% Riley County 17.9%
Kentucky 17.3% 20.0% Magoffin County 23.9%
Louisiana 18.3% 23.4% East Carroll Parish 34.4%
Massachusetts 10.3% 13.5% Suffolk County 14.2%
Maryland 10.1% 16.3% Baltimore City/County 22.2%
Maine 16.4% 21.4% Piscataquis County 16.4%
Michigan 14.3% 18.0% Wayne County 20.7%
Minnesota 9.7% 13.8% Clearwater County 13.4%
Missouri 14.2% 18.0% St. Louis City/County 25.1%
Mississippi 18.7% 26.3% Jefferson County 36.1%
Montana 12.9% 18.8% Glacier County 20.7%
North Carolina 15.1% 22.6% Edgecombe County 25.3%
North Dakota 8.8% 9.4% Rolette County 17.2%
Nebraska 14.7% 18.3% Thurston County 18.9%
New Hampshire 9.6% 12.9% Coos County 11.4%
New Jersey 11.1% 14.9% Essex County 17.1%
New Mexico 17.6% 25.0% McKinley County 27.3%
Nevada 12.1% 22.4% Mineral County 15.6%
New York 12.5% 19.4% Kings County 18.2%
Ohio 14.8% 21.9% Athens County 19.9%
Oklahoma 15.2% 22.6% Choctaw County 21.8%
Oregon 14.6% 22.5% Josephine County 15.6%
Pennsylvania 12.5% 17.9% Philadelphia County 21.0%
Rhode Island 12.8% 18.1% Providence County 13.2%
South Carolina 13.0% 18.9% Allendale County 25.6%
South Dakota 10.6% 18.0% Oglala Lakota County 26.9%
Tennessee 13.4% 21.1% Lake County 22.1%
Texas 14.3% 23.8% San Augustine County 25.6%
Utah 11.5% 16.4% San Juan County 19.9%
Virginia 9.9% 11.1% Petersburg City/County 27.5%
Vermont 10.1% 15.7% Essex County 13.3%
Washington 11.6% 19.0% Whitman County 19.7%
Wisconsin 10.7% 17.0% Menominee County 17.5%
West Virginia 14.9% 20.8% McDowell County 22.4%
Wyoming 12.7% 16.9% Albany County 17.3%

Places With the Most Food-Insecure Children10

Municipality Number of Food-Insecure Children
Los Angeles County, CA ~480,000
New York City, NY ~370,000
Harris County, TX ~280,000
Maricopa County, AZ (Phoenix) ~220,000
Cook County, IL (Chicago) ~200,000
Dallas County, TX ~160,000
San Diego County, CA ~130,000
Orange County, CA (Anaheim) ~125,000
Riverside County, CA ~120,000
Tarrant County, FL (Fort Worth) ~120,000

And it depends on your race.

Percentage of Children Ages 0-17 in Food-Insecure Households, By Race6

Race Percentage
Non-Hispanic Black 26.9
Hispanic 23.8
Non-Hispanic White 13.7

Young people ages 12-18 were 1.4 to 1.5 times more likely to be obese if they came from homes that were marginally food-secure or had low or very low food security.7

Hunger due to insufficient food intake has been proven to be linked to the following:

  • Repeating a grade11
  • Lower grades overall11
  • Inability to focus11

Meanwhile, in the U.S., 30-40% of all food becomes food waste.8 Some experts say the estimate is closer to half, representing 60 million tons or $160 billion worth of food.9

Food waste is the single largest component going into municipal landfills.8


What is food insecurity?

The US Department of Agriculture uses this food insecurity definition:

“Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

The USDA uses data to define food insecurity in two ways: low food security, meaning those who report no reduced food intake, but a reduced quality of diet, and very low food security, which is confirmed reports of disrupted eating patterns or reduced diet. This is studied by observing a lack of financial resources for food in a household.

How many people are food insecure in the US?

Here are some sobering facts about food-insecure families in the United States:

  • An estimated 42 million people are faced with food insecurity in the US.
  • That’s about 1 in 8 Americans.
  • What child hunger statistics tell us is that 12.9 million children live in food-insecure homes.
  • That’s about 1 in 6 American kids.
  • More than 5 million seniors over the age of 50 face hunger.
  • Seniors are an increasingly vulnerable group, with the rate of hungry seniors over age 60 increasing 53% since 2001.
  • About 27% of people in food insecure households make too little to be food secure, but make too much to qualify for aid that would minimize that insecurity, like SNAP and WIC.

If you take a closer look at US food insecurity statistics at a state- and local-level, you will notice some uncomfortable trends as well:

  • Breaking down food insecurity by state shows us that Mississippi has the most food-insecure households, at a rate of 18.7%.
  • Food insecurity data by county shows that there are pockets of extreme food insecurity from Maine to California to New Mexico to New Jersey.
  • New York City is the county with the highest number of people suffering from food insecurity in the United States.
  • Los Angeles, CA, has the highest child food insecurity by county.

Race factors into food insecurity, too. Black, non-Hispanic houses (9.7%) suffer from very low food security more than the national average (4.9%) as do Hispanic houses (5.8%). The percentage of children in food in-secure houses is higher for black children (26.9%) and Hispanic children (23.8%) than white children (13.7%).

What is child hunger in the US really like?

But to fully understand the situation experienced by America’s kids goes beyond both child hunger facts and sad faces on billboards.

  • The facts about school lunches are that only 27% of students pay full price for their National School Lunch Program Meals. Studies show that children eating NSLP lunches eat more nutritious, less caloric food and waste less of it. Many children can also get a discounted school breakfast, but only at participating schools.
  • What happens when they’re not at school? It’s estimated that 5 out of 6 starving kids who rely on free or discounted school lunches often don’t get free meals during the summer.
  • Hungry children at home are more likely to have behavioral problems at school, repeat a grade or experience developmental impairments.
  • Childhood obesity and starving children in America are seemingly paradoxically linked, with many states and areas with a high obesity rate also having a hunger problem. The unfortunate reality is that unhealthy foods tend to be cheaper.

In sum, there’s a huge gap between federal programs and child hunger rates in America.

What is the horrible truth about food waste in America?

Food waste statistics estimate that we throw out somewhere between 30% and 50% of all the food we produce. Sometimes this is at the producer level, but often it’s at the consumer level. One possible reason is the ever-increasing portions of restaurant foods; it’s estimated that today’s average restaurant meal is four times larger than its 1950s counterpart, and it’s up to eight times larger than USDA standard serving sizes. It can also have to do with bad or over-cautious food date labels and consumer waste that results from “ugly produce.”

What are the possible solutions to food insecurity?

Childhood hunger is an absurd thing to have in the midst of so many potential food waste solutions, whether it’s re-using food waste as products, proposing a tariff on restaurants, companies, and farms for waste, having rigorous food waste education programs in schools, or raising the ceiling for SNAP applications. Knowing how to stop child hunger in America requires both massive public concern and ingenuity. Let’s all do our part to reduce waste and feed the hungry in Am

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