The USDA surveyed 37,300 U.S. households in December 2018 and found that for the first time since the 2008 recession, food insecurity dropped to pre-recession levels. The department defines food insecurity has having to skip meals or juggle resources to purchase food, or when a household has trouble feeding themselves.
According to the report, the 2018 food insecurity level was 11.1%, or 14.3 million households. In 2017, the food insecurity rate stood at 11.8% and was 14.9% in 2011 – the highest since the USDA began compiling information on food security in 2001, according to USDA social science analyst Alisha Coleman-Jensen.
“Food insecurity is a managed process,” Coleman-Jensen said in a live web seminar Monday. “As it deteriorates families worry, juggle household spending, and as food insecurity worsens, they reduce the quality of food. Adults may reduce their own food intake while making sure children have enough. This is not about dieting or fasting.”
But while the number of households facing food shortages in their homes declined, the rate of families in “very low” food security is barely lower than a year ago. The number of households experiencing “very low food security” was 5.6 million in 2018 – or 4.3% of all U.S. households, just down from 4.5% in 2017. In this more severe range of food insecurity, the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources, Coleman-Jensen said.
The prevalence of food insecurity tends to be higher in households with a single mother or single father, in black and Hispanic households, families that live below the federal poverty levels, and in major metropolitan areas, according to the study.
When households face food insecurity they often turn to federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, free or reduced-price school lunches, or the WIC program. Households also use community programs such as food pantries or soup kitchens, the report said, and 53% of households using SNAP also use community-food programs.
Food insecurity among college students is a growing area of concern, Coleman-Jensen said, but because college students are often considered part of a family the USDA doesn’t have research data on them.
In the study, though, states with higher education rates and higher employment rates tend to be more food-secure. Statewide costs of housing and state participation in food programs can also make a difference in food security, even in states that are largely dependent on agriculture. Government policies at the state level may make it harder to participate in nutrition programs.
“All of those things matter at the state level in affecting food insecurity rates,” Coleman-Jensen said.
The prevalence of food insecurity varied from among states, ranging from 7.8% in New Hampshire to 16.8% in New Mexico.
While certain areas of food security in America are increasing, the number of households with children who were “food insecure” hasn’t changed much in the last two years. According to the report, children in 2.7 million households were food insecure at times during 2018, or 7.1% of U.S. households with children – just down from 7.7% in 2017. Those households were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.
Parents or heads of households are usually able to shield children in the household from disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. But in 2018, children and adults in 220,000 American households experienced instances of “very low food security”, down only .01 percent from 2017. These households with “very low food security among children” reported that children were hungry, skipped a meal or did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food.
Information for the USDA’s food security report comes from an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The 2018 report surveyed 37,300 households, composing a representative sample of about 130 million U.S. households, the USDA said.