Hunger and food insecurity are not the same. Here’s why that matters—and what they mean.

Illustration of an empty fridge in front of a black and white photo of a stocked produce aisle. December 2020

Graphic by Tricia Vuong | iStock/YinYang/CSA Images

For some period of time in 2019, nearly 14 million American households “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” That’s how it was officially documented: a grievous statistic for the world’s richest country, where 30 to 40 percent of our food is discarded annually.

But that number actually represented the lowest rates of food insecurity in nearly a decade. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have tragically reversed this trajectory, and the United States is now experiencing an exponential increase in both food insecurity and hunger.

In late October, Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization, projected that 54 million Americans didn’t have enough food to eat—a 46 percent increase since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. The data are even more painful for households with children, whose rates of food insecurity have more than tripled since the onset of the pandemic.

A snapshot assessment led by the U.S. Census Bureau and designed to offer less-comprehensive but more immediate information on the social and economic impacts of Covid, showed that, as recently as the period between November 25 and December 7 (including Thanksgiving), some 27 million adults—13 percent of all adults in the country—reported their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat.

While this information has been widely shared, it’s often done so without much context or clarity on the terms used. Food insecurity and hunger are not interchangeable, at least not in any official context. Behind this data are people staring at empty kitchen cabinets, skipping meals, trying to console hungry kids, and having to make heartbreaking decisions around staying in jobs that might increase their exposure to Covid. In order to fully confront this challenge, we have to understand what these terms mean, what they measure—and who is impacted.

We haven’t always been able to do that. The definitions we’re sharing in this story come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency tasked with not only measuring food insecurity but also providing relief measures to help mitigate the challenge. But they are relatively new as metrics go.

Prior to the 1930s, food scarcity was managed at the local level (and continued to be in many disenfranchised communities for a long time after, including today). During the Great Depression, however, Congress purchased surplus crops from farmers for the first time and donated them to hunger-relief organizations.

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In 1939, USDA started its first, short-lived experimental food stamp program. It was formally instituted with the 1964 Food Stamp Act, which has been updated a few times since. In 1966, the School Breakfast program was established to serve “nutritionally needy” children (but, as USDA makes clear, the term was not defined).

Following a series of economic recessions in the 1980s, the country was seized by a dramatic rise in poverty. At the same time, Reagan-era rhetoric stoked public ire with false notions of “welfare queens” feasting on lobster, greedy beneficiaries of bloated federal-assistance programs who lived extravagantly at taxpayer expense.  

Food insecurity and hunger are not interchangeable, at least not in any official context.

The need for clarity around terminology was made obvious by a report from the President’s Task Force on Food Assistance, a group convened in 1983 to “examine the extent of America’s hunger problem, to determine its causes, and to recommend specific solutions.”

But that administration wasn’t ultimately able to provide concrete numbers on hunger, due to what it described as an “inability to document” what had never before been counted. Federal response continued to be sluggish until George H.W. Bush took office and, in 1990, implemented a 10-year initiative to assess “the dietary and nutritional status” of Americans through the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act. In that same year, USDA adopted definitions for food security/insecurity and hunger and, in 1995, started to measure them. The definitions you see below are ones the agency has updated, and expanded upon, since that time.

What is hunger?

In its 1984 report, the President’s Task Force on Food Assistance wrote: “To many people hunger means not just symptoms that can be diagnosed by a physician; it bespeaks the existence of a social, not a medical problem.” That is how many of us use the term when thinking of the concept on a macro level.

But we also know that, on an individual basis, hunger presents as something immediate and acute—and has varying implications. I might be hungry for a snack, for example, but I know I can walk over to my fridge and quell my fleeting pang. An unhoused person living on the streets might also be hungry, but has no ability to eradicate that pain. “Hunger” is a broad and imprecise term used to describe a physical and emotional condition that ranges from easily remedied to utterly all-consuming.

“Hunger” is a broad and imprecise term used to describe a physical and emotional condition that ranges from easily remedied to utterly all-consuming.

In 2006, USDA sought counsel from the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National Academies on how to best make these distinctions. Because of the panel’s report, which urged USDA to further differentiate hunger from food insecurity, the department updated its definition of hunger to “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food. It is not directly measured but considered ‘an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.’”

So, if hunger is a “sensation,” then what’s food insecurity? And what’s food security?

Building on the same CNSTAT report, food insecurity, as defined by USDA and also used in Feeding America’s reports, “means that households were, at times, unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food.” This economic condition—not hunger—is what USDA measures and what is shared in reports on lack of food in the United States.

Food security means that “people have access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. At a minimum, this includes: 1) readily available, nutritionally adequate, and safe foods and 2) assured ability to acquire personally acceptable foods in a socially acceptable way.”

In most instances, USDA considers households with high or marginal food security as food secure, and those with low or very low food security as food insecure.

How are they measured?

Food security and food insecurity are determined by answers to questions administered by the Census Bureau to a random national sample of about 60,000 households. The sample is considered representative. It includes residents, immigrants who are documented and undocumented, and Native Americans living on reservations, as well as in the general population. Importantly, it does not include people who are unhoused or incarcerated.   

One final term to keep in mind is food insufficiency. It is a quick measure used in the Census Household Pulse Survey (cited earlier) to gauge the impact of the pandemic. The term is what analysts at the Institute for Policy Research describe as a “screener” to “the battery of questions designed to measure food security.” Respondents are asked, “In the last 7 days, which of these statements best describes the food eaten in your households?” and then choose among four responses to clarify if they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food, and if it was the type of food they desired. Food insufficiency is comparable to the USDA classification for “very low food security.”

Do these definitions adequately express the challenge?

In a word, no. Hunger, food insecurity, and food insufficiency are multifaceted concepts that can’t be fully captured by yes/no questions on a survey. The definition of food security as access to “nutritionally adequate” and “socially acceptable” food is a pretty low bar, which is why fights for food justice and food sovereignty—that emphasize nourishing, culturally appropriate food created in healthy and just contexts—are ongoing.

During the same year in which 45 of the 50 largest public companies in America have turned a profit, 40 million more Americans have become food-insecure.

In regard to food sufficiency, researchers question if access to specific types of food could reflect disruptions in the supply chain—items being sold out in a grocery store, for instance—rather than actual need.

But no matter how the challenge is parsed, one thing is clear: the disparities are gutting.

Less than one month ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose to record highsa surge that collided with this historic rise in food insecurity, where one in 6 Americans and 1 in 4 children now face hunger, and a growing number of people are shoplifting food and baby formula. In other words, during the same year in which 45 of the 50 largest public companies in America have turned a profit, 40 million more Americans have become food-insecure.

The resources to address this problem are there, the political will is not.

An analysis by The Washington Post noted, “More Americans are going hungry now than at any point during the deadly coronavirus pandemic … a problem created by an economic downturn that has tightened its grip on millions of Americans and compounded by government relief programs that expired or will terminate at the end of the year. Experts say it is likely that there’s more hunger in the United States today than at any point since 1998, when the Census Bureau began collecting comparable data about households’ ability to get enough food.” The resources to address this problem are there, the political will is not.

Who is most impacted?

This challenge is uneven—and unjust. The states that are hardest hit—Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and New Mexico—were also the most food insecure pre-pandemic, but now their rates of food insecurity are much higher. Jefferson County, Mississippi, the most severely impacted area in the country, has food insecurity rates of over 36 percent. Nevada, a state heavily reliant on tourism, with high numbers of residents working in the service industry, jumped from the 20th- to eighth-highest food insecurity rate by state—a direct reflection of this year’s quarantines and closures.

A chart showing the areas with the highest 2020 food insecurity projections due to Covid-19. December 2020

Areas with Highest Rates of Food Insecurity, 2020 with Projections Due to Covid-19.

There is no way to fully capture people’s intersectional identities, but here are a few more statistics to consider. The most recent USDA data indicate that, in 2019, over 19 percent of Black Americans, 15 percent of Hispanic Americans (their own designation), and roughly 8 percent of white Americans were food insecure. Since then, these rates have worsened.  

Statistics on racial/ethnic groups outside of those categories are lumped into a catch-all grouping called “Other,” and stand at just under 10 percent. This “other”ing hides stark disparities between people of different races, ethnicities, ages, income levels—and geographies. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, for example, shows that, over a 10-year period, Native American communities averaged a food insecurity rate of 25 percent. Drill down further and you’ll find even greater nuance (and challenge): An assessment of Tribal communities in the Klamath River Basin of southern Oregon and northern California found 92 percent of households in the region lacked access to sufficient food.

Perhaps the most tragic irony is that the very people engaged in the work of feeding us are among the most impacted.

Perhaps the most tragic irony is that the very people engaged in the work of feeding us are among the most impacted. A study of migrant and seasonal farmworker households living on the U.S.–Mexico border showed 82 percent were food insecure and 49 percent were impacted by hunger. The statistics are no better on the other end of the food chain. In 2014, more than 40 percent of restaurant workers did not make enough money to feed themselves adequately. The dramatic number of restaurant closures in 2020 means those statistics have gone from bad to worse. 

It’s estimated that about half of the nation’s 2.4 million farmworkers and one-third of those in food services are undocumented. They not only grapple with systemic bias, vulnerabilities due to documentation status, and appallingly low pay, but have limited access to food assistance.

What kinds of food assistance are there?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest food-assistance program for low-income Americans, benefiting 38 million people in 2019 and amounting to approximately $129 in support per household member per month. The program is intended only for U.S. citizens and select non-citizens. (For more details on this, see our story on immigrant farmworkers and SNAP.)

Since February, there has been about a 15 percent increase in SNAP usage, a surge described in a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as “unprecedented.” Benefits were increased in April due to the pandemic, but SNAP is only effective if authorized grocery stores are easy to reach or, especially in Covid time, found online.

The most important thing to know about food assistance is that availability does not equal access.

USDA piloted its online program for the first time last year and, while it has tried to expand quickly, there are major gaps in SNAP and in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). If you are an older person who may not be as web-savvy—and already faces barriers to participation—or a new mom who needs to tend to her baby, these barriers can be insurmountable. The most important thing to know about food assistance is that availability does not equal access.

Some communities are impacted more than others. Native Americans are one group who are particularly vulnerable to a dearth of grocery stores. The swath of land that is home to the Diné people (Navajo Nation), for example, stretches across 27,000 square miles but has only 13 grocery stores. Although it’s spotty, when grocery stores that are part of SNAP aren’t available, USDA offers an alternative program: Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

How else can we support people who are food insecure?

Another critical set of resources for people who are food insecure are food banks and food pantries. According to Feeding America—the nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs—food banks have seen a 60 percent increase in demand compared to this time last year. That presents an extraordinary logistical challenge, as food banks struggle to expand inventories to meet the surge—an unprecedented 17 billion pounds of food, more than three times the food bank network’s last annual distribution of 5 billion pounds. (Read more in this firsthand account from a longtime hunger-relief leader.)

An expansion of federal benefits and eligibility in SNAP could curb this overwhelming need. And, as Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy at City University of London, points out: “The rhetoric of many in government is that food banks and soup kitchens represent the caring face of society. But another way of viewing this is that charity provision is a testament of the failure of public authorities to deliver and this should not be seen as a permanent substitute for more robust social programmes.”

On Monday, Congress finalized a $900 billion coronavirus rescue package. It includes, with an income threshold, stimulus payments of up to $600 per adult and child and will allow U.S. citizens who are in households that also include non-citizens to receive the payments. This payment is, to be blunt, insufficient and unacceptable. To put it in perspective, this $600 is the first—and only direct relief—that has been extended since April. A family of four, for example, should receive, at some point in the near future, a one-time payment of $2,400 ($600 per family member). The official USDA average of the cost of food prepared at home, on a “moderate cost plan,” for a family of four for one month is $1100.30.

The deal will also allocate $400 million for food banks and $13 billion to SNAP and other food assistance programs. It includes a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits for the next 6 months for existing SNAP participants and $5 million to assist in adding additional retailers to online SNAP. The package does not expand eligibility for the program so many of those who feed us are, again, left out.

“Charity provision is a testament of the failure of public authorities to deliver and this should not be seen as a permanent substitute for more robust social programmes.”

Despite, and because of, this inadequate federal response, 2020 reminds us that community support is paramount. We feed each other. Mutual aid—the ways in which communities directly support and feed each other when current systems fail to meet basic needs—are rooted in organizations such as the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, which held its first public meeting in 1808 with the intention of providing “mutual interest, mutual benefit, and mutual relief” to Black residents.

Mutual aid can take many forms—a yard-sharing network, series of fermentation workshops, or free groceries—but, fundamentally, it’s about nourishing and sustaining community. It is a system, said Whitney Hu, founder of South Brooklyn Mutual Aid, where “no one is disposable and all are cared for—solidarity, not charity.”

Simran Sethi is a freelancer reporter who focuses on food, science, and culture. She is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, named one of the best food books of 2016 by Smithsonian, and the host/creator of The Slow Melt, winner of the 2017 SAVEUR award for Best Food Podcast.