The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released its annual report on household food security—a survey that measures whether US households have “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.” The report documented the largest yearly increase in food insecurity since the Great Recession—increasing from 10.2 to 12.8 percent of all US households from 2021 to 2022. Although Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack implied this increase is mostly attributable to the rolling back of pandemic-era programs, its causes are more complex. Although the discontinuation of certain pandemic-era supports and a methodological change in the food security survey are probable contributors, the primary cause of food insecurity increases likely stem from the unprecedented food inflation witnessed in 2022.
First, it is important to understand what food insecurity means, and what the report found. Food insecurity measures households’ ability to afford the amount or types of food household members want. The USDA also measures “very low food security,” which assesses whether household members experienced a disruption in food intake due to a lack of resources–what people generally perceive as hunger. In 2022, 5.1 percent of households reported very low food security at some point during the year and 2.8 percent in the 30 days prior to the survey.
Food insecurity rates derive from an 18-item question series and the questions range in severity. In 2022, 16.7 percent of households reported that they “worried food would run out before (I/we) got money to buy more,” while four percent reported that “Respondent [was] hungry but didn’t eat because couldn’t afford food” and 1.6 percent reported, “Adult(s) did not eat for a whole day”.
The report also measures food insecurity among children. The survey found a lower prevalence of food insecurity among children compared to adults, as adults often shield children from food access challenges. In 2022, 8.8 percent of households with children reported having food-insecure children, with only one percent reporting children experiencing very low food security.
The report documented the largest annual increase in food insecurity since the Great Recession, though. Historically, increases in the unemployment rate correspond to rising food insecurity rates, but 2022 was different. The average monthly unemployment rate decreased from 5.4 percent in 2021 to 3.6 percent in 2022, meaning that unemployment did not drive food insecurity increases. Rather, at least three other factors likely played a role in rising household food security in 2022, with inflation the primary driver.
Firstly, the USDA changed the survey used to measure food insecurity in 2022, raising questions about the comparability of this year’s food insecurity rates with prior years. Although the changes to the survey were minor (i.e. changing the order of questions, changing the phrasing of certain questions, etc.), even small changes can affect statistics in large national surveys. Two years ago, the USDA piloted these changes and concluded that “the minor changes to the food security section are unlikely to affect the measurement of food insecurity or affect the comparability of year-to-year estimates”. However, their own report found that the new methodology resulted in a statistically significant one percentage point higher food insecurity rate. The extent to which we can attribute the 2022 increase in household food insecurity to the new survey methodology remains uncertain, but it is plausible that it played some role.
Secondly, the effects of pandemic policy choices continue to linger. In 2021, households with incomes up to a certain amount received one-time economic impact payments totaling $1,400 per person. During the last six months of 2021, they also received monthly payments of $250 per child ($300 for younger children), accounting for half of the expanded Child Tax Credit while receiving the other half at tax time in 2022. These additional household resources likely influenced food security rates in 2021 and affected trends into 2022.
Thirdly, and probably the most importantly, households experienced unprecedented food inflation in 2022. The figure below shows trends in food insecurity rates and the average 12-month percentage change in the Consumer Price Index for food at home. Food prices accelerated in 2022 faster than at any time in the past two decades, undoubtedly putting pressure on household budgets. The federal government’s primary food assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), adjusts benefit levels to account for inflation, but these adjustments do not take effect until the beginning of each federal fiscal year, often leaving low-income households to bear the burden of rising prices before benefit programs can catch up.
Food inflation has decelerated in 2023, with the 12-month percentage change in CPI for food at home declining to 3.7 percent in September 2023 from a peak of 11.4 percent in August 2022. This should alleviate some of the strain on low-income households and allow food security rates to stabilize in 2023.