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The Real Story Behind Food Insecurity in the US


April 18, 2024

Hunger in the US is rising at an alarming pace – or is it?

Last year’s annual report on food insecurity in the US led lawmakers to believe hunger is on the rise, and, unsurprisingly, federal lawmakers are using rising levels of food insecurity to advocate for expansions to federal government programs. Unfortunately, policymakers are conflating hunger and food insecurity – a subjective metric that is fundamentally flawed. Congress should reject calls for expanding government programs under the mistaken belief that hunger in the US is rising.

Officially, a household is considered “food insecure” if they are deemed to have “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Following the expiration of pandemic-era benefits, the share of US households classified as food insecure rose to 12.8 percent in 2022—the highest food insecurity rate since 2014.

Many policymakers understood this to mean that a growing share of Americans are going hungry, and that lawmakers must step in and expand food assistance programs. At a congressional hearing last June, several members of Congress used food insecurity and hunger interchangeably. For these lawmakers, the only solution is more government spending. Confusing food insecurity with hunger isn’t limited to members of Congress either. President Biden and his Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have repeatedly used rising levels of food insecurity to justify further expansions to government assistance programs.

But these policymakers fail to understand that food insecurity differs from hunger, and that the government’s measure of food insecurity is fundamentally flawed.

The problem lies in the subjective nature of food insecurity. Every December, the US Census Bureau asks a representative group of Americans up to 18 questions about their experience of food-related hardships over the past year. If the household indicates a certain number of food hardships, then they are deemed food insecure. However, many of the “food hardships” in the survey are remarkably subjective. For example, households are asked whether they are able to “afford to eat balanced meals” or if they “worried whether their food would run out.”

But people can differ in their definition of a “balanced meal” or what causes them to worry about running out of food. Because a households’ food security status is entirely dependent on their answers to these subjective questions, it is quite possible that households with sufficient resources can still view themselves as food insecure.

We recently analyzed data on food insecure households’ incomes and food spending to get a clearer picture of what being defined as food insecure can actually tell us about the household in question. If food insecure households were really strapped for cash, we expected them to have lower incomes and spend less on food compared to food secure households. But that’s not always the case, according to our analysis. 

Our analysis found that many food insecure households seemingly had more than enough income to get by. In fact, nearly a quarter of households classified as food insecure have incomes that put them in the top three quintiles of the income distribution. Roughly speaking, this means that 4 million of the 17 million households purportedly experiencing food-related hardships had incomes that placed them in the middle class or higher.

Not only are many food insecure households in the middle class, but significant numbers of them are among the biggest spenders on food. For example, approximately 17 percent of food insecure households spend at least $160 per person on food per week, which placed them in the top spending quintile.

These findings show that many households who report food insecurity are also among the biggest food spenders, suggesting that they are likely not going hungry. Other research has turned up similar results. Travis Smith and Christian Gregory recently found that most food insecure individuals “consume enough (or even too many) calories.” And research by Craig Gundersen and David Ribar found that most of those who spend the least on food actually report being food secure. This raises serious questions about how we measure food hardship in the United States, and whether changes in food insecurity can be used to justify expansions to the safety net.

Despite these questions over how we measure food insecurity, President Biden and others have called for further expansions to food assistance programs. But over the same time that the federal government has more than tripled its spending on food assistance programs, the share of US households deemed “food insecure” has increased. Before spending even more money, we should first find a way to better identify those in need.