By: Heather Williams

The media has been reporting a lot on the topic of “lunch shaming”, and how it related to food insecurity in the United States. But it is surprising that so few people know what food insecurity is and that is even exists in our country.

What is Food Insecurity?

Food security describes the availability of food to a person or a household.  While most people do not have to think where their next meal will come from, resources available and access to food is a major concern to a lot of people.  We may consider this is more of a problem in developing countries, but it is very much a domestic issue as well.  Even with the United States being considered a developed country and has advances in medicine, industry, and food production there are many people in the United States today that routinely go without food.

An expert panel called The Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) created labels to describe the various levels of food security ranging from high food security to very low food security and the characteristics reported at each level.   CNSTAT conducted a food security survey to provide household statistics.  The term hunger is associated with food insecurity and is according the panel report, “should refer to a potential 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.

According to CNSTAT, the following categories describe the levels of food security.  The names of the categories have recently been changed to capture the impact of food security more explicitly.

  • High food security – “No reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.”
  • Marginal food security – “One or two reported indications – typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or storage of food in the house. Little or no indications of changes in diets or food intake.”
  • Low food security – “Reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of food intake.”
  • Very low food security – “Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

To give you an idea of what this means in real terms, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) posted statistics obtained in the 2015 Food Security Survey.  The defining characteristics of those in the very low food security category is that there are more than a few times in which household food intake is reduced and because the household does not have money or other resources for food. Of these, 98% in the very low food security responded that they worried that their food would run out before they had money to buy more.  About 96% reported that they did not have the money to eat balanced meals.  Of these, 96% in the very low food security category reported that an adult had skipped meal or cut the size of a meal because there was not enough money for food.  Also, 45% responded that they had lost weight because they did not have enough money to buy food.  These sad statistics go on and on.  Keep in mind this is in the United States, not some non-industrial country across the world.

Food insecurity has many consequences for people of all ages.  Some more obvious for children, but also for teenagers and the elderly.  Children are at risk for developmental challenges as a result of food insecurity.  Teenagers are at risk for extreme behaviors to cope with food insecurity.  Elderly often have to choose between medications or food.

 Consequences of Food Insecurity in Children

A study from researchers at Georgetown University and the University of Virginia published in the journal Child Development estimates show that a substantial number of children under the age of 5 live in households that are food insecure.  Findings from the study suggest that timing of the food insecurity affects development and adjustment in kindergarten.  “In our study, food insecurity in infancy and toddlerhood predicted lower cognitive and social-emotional skills in kindergarten, skills that can predict later success in academics and life,” says Anna Johnson, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University.  The study also found that how often the children experience food insecurity was linked with poorer outcomes in kindergarten across all areas of development.  For example, children who experienced 3 episodes of food insecurity performed poorer than those who experienced 2 episodes.  The same was demonstrated compared to 2 versus 1 episode.

Early developmental years are critical for food security.  A healthy and balanced diet helps the child develop and perform better once they start school.  When a healthy and consistent diet is not available, the child suffers academically and developmentally as they begin school.

Physicians are encouraged to identify food insecurity in their patients and refer them to assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).   A toolkit has been released for pediatric practices that helps physicians screen families.  The screening tool includes 2 simple questions: “Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.  Yes or No?” and “Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.  Yes or No?” Answering those two questions honestly helps physicians identify those at-risk children and families.

Consequences of Food Insecurity in Teenagers

An estimated 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 are food insecure. Of these,  2.9 million are very food insecure, and close to 4 million in that age group are marginally food insecure.  This affects physical and mental health and development as well as academic success of these teenagers.  Additionally, food insecurity may affect teen behavior causing some to cope with hunger or prevent younger siblings from being hungry in many ways.  In a study on how food insecurity affects teens between the ages of 13 and 18, 20 focus groups spanning 10 diverse communities generated consistent themes.

The study identified that food insecurity is quite widespread.  Even teens who were not insecure knew teens that regularly didn’t have enough food to eat.  But many teens admitted to being worried about the stigma and to hiding hunger and refusing to accept food or assistance in public.  Many teens discussed how they strategize on how to ease their own hunger as well as how to make food last longer for the whole family by either saving some of their school lunch to eat on the weekends or eating at a friend or relative’s house.  Some teens even reported that they resorted to criminal behavior such as shoplifting food, stealing things to sell for money to buy food, as well as selling drugs to get money for food.  In a few communities some teens talked about failing school to attend summer school or going to jail to secure regular meals.  Some teens even resorted to selling sex for money in order to pay for food.  In fact, all 10 communities had some teens who admitted to doing or knowing someone who has resorted to prostitution for money to buy food.

Consequences of Food Insecurity in Elderly

Seniors are the fasted growing food insecure population in the United States, with 1 in 11 facing hunger.  More than 7 million adults are currently seeking food assistance from the Feed American nationwide network of food banks.  Many elderly must make the tough decision between paying for expensive medications or buying food.  In fact, more than 60% of older adult households served by the Feed America network report making this tradeoff.  About 60% report having to make a choice between food and utilities. About 58% had to decide between food and transportation, and 49% have had to make a choice between food and housing.  “Senior hunger is not an issue our country can ignore,” said Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America.  “It is tragic that the costs of rent, groceries, and medical care have forced millions of older adults to make impossible choices, skip meals and forgo necessary medications.”  Food insecurity makes the elderly go without important medications.  This leads to additional health problems that they cannot afford to treat as well.

Whether young, old, or somewhere in between, food insecurity is a real problem.  Even in the first world.  Local pantries need support and volunteers.  People affected by this poverty need to be made aware of these services and help them have access to them.  With the dire consequences of food insecurity at all age groups, more must be done to end hunger.