Food Insecurity In the United States

In 2016, 15.6 million households (5% of U.S. households) were food insecure. In these households there were

  • 41.2 million people (13.4% of the population). Among these individuals there were
  • 6.5 million children.

That is:

  • 1 in 8 individuals (13.4%)
  • 1 in 6 children (17.9%)

These families were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for all their members.

→ These numbers have remained constant since 2015, signaling an unresolved issue that is likely to worsen as public assistance to families in hardship diminishes.

Music for Food addresses the problem as a whole. As musicians, we know how body, mind, and emotion together build the reality of being human. At any level, the lack of means to access regularly balanced meals profoundly disrupts life and deprives those affected of the beauty of humanity exemplified in music.

Hunger is unacceptable, however frequently it occurs, wherever it occurs. Food insecurity leads to poor health, addiction, despair, job loss, and is often linked to family and home insecurity.


Food-insecure describes a household economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food: Families had difficulty at some time during the year in providing adequate food for all their members due to a lack of resources.

Since 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has introduced new language to describe ranges of severity of food insecurity.

  • High food security: no indication of food-access problems or limitations.
  • Marginal food security: some anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house, but without changes in diets or food intake.
  • Low food security: reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security: a severe range of food insecurity. It means that the food intake of some household members was reduced at times during the year, and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food. 10.8 million adults and 703,000 children lived in households with very low food security.

Food Insecurity vs Hunger
According to the USDA, hunger refers to an individual’s physiological perception – “consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.” The USDA includes a question about hunger in its annual survey of food insecurity. Other questions include how often individuals cut the size of meals or skip meals and how often the family runs out of money before the end of the month. Based on these questions, the USDA constructs a composite measure of food insecurity.

For more on the questions the USDA asks to determine food insecurity, click here and go to pages 3 through 5.


The USDA conducts an annual survey on food insecurity in the U.S. It asks questions about household composition. From this survey we know that certain kinds of households have particularly high rates of food insecurity.

Low and very low food security are particularly prevalent in households:

  • with children under 18 years of age;
  • with seniors living alone;
  • with female heads of household and no spouse; &
  • that are non-white.
In addition, low and very low food security are particularly prevalent in households that are:

  • below 100% of the Federal Poverty Level;
  • not in metropolitan areas; &
  • in the Midwest and South.
For more on the characteristics of food insecure households, click here and go to pages 18 - 19.


From government reports, academic research, and anecdotal evidence, we know that individuals or families who do not have enough money to buy food for regular and balanced meals (fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, natural sources of protein, dairy items, or the equivalent) may use a variety of coping strategies: they may eat less, eat inexpensive food, consume energy drinks, get food from emergency sources and food pantries, rely on public assistance programs, or obtain school meals for children.

The special challenges confronting those who are food insecure include, but are not limited to such factors as accessibility and affordability of food retailers (travel time, food prices) and poor quality of food in local venues (“food deserts”). Cooking can also be a problem, due to a lack of gas, electricity, or time. Some people, especially the homeless, may even lack access to a kitchen.

→ Food pantries, school meals, shelter meals (like Music for Food partner Women’s Lunch Place), church meals, and hunger advocate food-drives are all essential resources in combating food insecurity.


Public help is limited.

Charitable programs alone cannot provide enough support. The combination of charity and government assistance programs is necessary to help those struggling with hunger. Federal programs through the USDA provide some assistance, but these programs are currently challenged and their funding is being limited or cut.

The main federal government programs for food assistance are:

  • SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly food stamps, provides temporary help for people going through hard times – providing supplemental money to buy food until people in need can get back on their feet. Eligibility for SNAP is based on the number of people in a household and net monthly household income, which cannot exceed 100% of the federal poverty level. In 2017 a family of three with a net monthly income of $1702 or less was eligible for SNAP and received $504 for a month of food purchases. This amount was less than it was a year earlier and it will probably decrease in the future.
  • WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Although the federal government regulates and provides the bulk of the funding for these programs, they are also administered and may be supplemented by state and local governments, but state and local help, even if it sustains children for part of the day, leaves children without food on Sundays, school vacation and holidays.

Data gathered from:
Feeding America
US Department of Agriculture
And from the study: Household Food Security 2016.pdf