Last Updated 21 Aug 2020

Food Insecurity: History & Background

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Since 1990s food insecurity has been assessed and monitored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the federal level. Food insecurity is defined as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” (3) and remains distinct from hunger, which is a physiological response leading to physical discomfort associated with a lack of food.(4) The problem of hunger in the United States is not for a scarcity of food.

The root cause of this endemic problem is a growing disparity between the rich and the poor. In 2018 the U.S. Census reported 11.8 percent of the country lives below the poverty level. (x) The USDA estimated that 11.1% of US households were food insecure in 2018. (x) This means that approximately 14.3 million households had difficulty providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.

Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line. Although levels of food insecurity have declined and risen over this period, one trend that has continued to persist is the gap in the prevalence of food insecurity between people of color and whites. (3)

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The relationship between race/ethnicity and food insecurity is multifaceted and is associated with other recognized causes of food insecurity including poverty, underemployment or unemployment, incarceration, and high housing costs. In an annual report from a survey of mayors who serve on the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, three main causes of hunger identified were low wages (88 percent), high housing costs (59 percent) and poverty. In addition, forty-one percent cited unemployment and 23 percent cited medical or health costs.

Food-insecure households often must decide between buying food and buying or paying for other items or needs, including medication, housing, and utilities. Nearly two-thirds (66%) of household’s in the Feeding America network report choosing between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care in the past year.

Wealth gap contributes to food insecurity. Wealth is unequally distributed by race, African American families have a fraction of the wealth of white families, leaving them more economically insecure. Lack of adequate education and living wages, lack of access to health care and health information, and exposure to unsafe living conditions such as unsafe water, poor housing, and dangerous neighborhood environments as a result of poverty, all contribute to food insecurity.

There is growing acknowledgement that discrimination and structural racism contribute to health inequities. () Studies show that racial discrimination limits people of color’s access to educational and employment opportunities resulting in social and economic consequences that could lead to food insecurity.

Structural racism refers to “to the totality of ways in which societies foster racial discrimination through mutually reinforcing systems ( housing, education, employment, earnings, benefits, credit, media, health care, and criminal justice) that in turn reinforce discriminatory beliefs, values, and distribution of resources.” (bailey) and significantly disadvantages people of color.

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