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.

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Food Insecurities in America

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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 new food 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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