Food Insecurity a Major Problem for U.S. Families

By Helly Lee and Zane Jennings

A new report from Feeding America, a network of over 200 food banks across the country, highlights troubling data and national trends on food insecurity (not knowing when or where your next meal will come from). “Map the Meal Gap” illustrates the critical need to continue federal investment in nutrition programs as families struggle to make ends meet in a slowly recovering economy.

In the United States, 49 million people are food insecure, including 16 million children. This has major consequences for a child’s physical and cognitive development, resulting in poor school performance during critical years. Furthermore, food insecurity can detrimentally affect adults. Food-insecure women may be at greater risk of mental health issues, including maternal depression, while both women and men are at higher risk of diabetes.

Food insecurity hasn’t let up during our slow economic recovery. Between 2011 and 2012, the national food insecurity average remained essentially the same, dropping just 0.4 percent. And despite a modest reduction in unemployment rates, poverty (a strong predictor of food insecurity) persisted at its previous rates. 

The report includes county-level data on food insecurity and finds that minority communities, where poverty rates are higher than the national average, are disproportionately affected. In 2012, 93 percent of counties where African Americans make up the majority of the population fell into the high-food insecurity group. The average poverty rate in these counties was 29 percent—well above the national average (16 percent).

Federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) help address the nutritional needs of low-income families. SNAP has proven to be an effective anti-poverty program that expands to meet increased need when the economy is bad and retracts as the economy recovers. However, SNAP alone cannot fully alleviate the food insecurity of families across the nation. The report finds that 27 percent of food-insecure Americans are typically ineligible for most federal nutrition assistance programs because they exceed income limits.  Instead of imposing the SNAP cuts included in the Ryan budget, we should strengthen the program to serve even more food-insecure households.  

Food insecurity is of paramount importance to the futures of both our economy and families. Charities play a vital role in addressing the problem, but they aren’t able to bear the bulk of the load. It is vital that we continue to invest in federal nutrition programs to support food-insecure communities.