What Is Food Insecurity?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on December 21, 2022
7 min read

Most people can go to the grocery store and buy the food they need, but not everyone can get enough healthy food easily. This is called food insecurity, and it can look different for different people.

The United States Department of Agriculture breaks food insecurity into two categories:

Low food security is when the food you eat is lower-quality or isn’t very appealing, and you don't have many choices. But you typically get enough food.

Very low food security is when you can’t get food when you need to or you have to eat less because you don’t have money or other ways to get it.

People can face food insecurity for different reasons, such as if they're unemployed, don't make enough money at their job, or have a disability.

Where someone lives also can affect their ability to get food. For example, some urban areas, rural places, and low-income neighborhoods only have convenience stores and small independent stores instead of full-service supermarkets or grocery stores. That typically means higher prices, fewer choices, and less healthy food. And when public transportation is limited, it can be even harder to get enough healthy meals on the table.

While food insecurity may sound a lot like hunger, the two are different. Hunger is a physical issue that can be caused by food insecurity. It can lead to illness, weakness, or pain.

Food insecurity can stem from many deep-rooted, complex problems in society. For some, it could be a temporary issue, but for others, it could be a long-standing cyclical problem made worse by many factors in society.

Some of the main causes include:

Poverty, low income, or unemployment. Research shows that if your household income is low, you’re 2.6 times more likely to be food insecure. That’s because other necessary costs like rent, utilities, and clothing use up any available money.

High living costs. Inflation, an economic structure that drives up the price of goods and services in the economy, affects how you’re able to purchase the basics of your day-to-day life. For example, the cost increase in rent, utilities and other household bills, quality foods, transportation, and gas affects how much you’re able to spend on food for your household. 

Living in a food desert. The level of food insecurity differs from state to state and among neighborhoods in a city or town. 

If you live in a rural area with low levels of population, and lack access to markets with fresh foods and produce, with mostly only fast-food options around or near you, you might live in a food desert. Your income and race can also play a role in how you’re able to access food on a day-to-day basis. Those who live in urban cities can also find themselves in food deserts. That’s because downtowns or busy areas may lack supermarkets that carry fresh, energy-dense foods that are affordable for the entire household. 

Lack of access to good, affordable health care. High insurance, high health care costs, medical bills, transport to and from hospitals and clinics, and medication costs might put a sizable dent in your food budget. This, in turn, could make your food insecurity worse.

Systemic racism and discrimination. Research has consistently shown that people of color, especially Black and Hispanic people, are more likely to have food insecurity than white people. 

That’s because in general, people of color face higher barriers to employment, job loss, higher rates of infection, eviction from homes, and harsher punishments from the criminal justice system, compared to white people. 

LGBTQ people as a whole also tend to face poverty more than the heterosexual (straight) population. Discrimination against gender and sexual orientation can cause LGBTQ people to face more barriers to education, jobs, the ability to find housing, and access to good health care. All of this increases their odds of food insecurity. 

Research has found that some groups of people are more likely to have food insecurity than others. That’s because certain factors that cause disparities in society – such as race, gender, sexual orientation, lack of job opportunities, and income levels – can make you less able to get quality, nourishing foods. 

Those who are most at risk for food insecurity are:

  • Young, non-Hispanic Black males
  • Middle-aged Black women
  • Hispanic people 
  • LGBTQ adults
  • Children whose parents are unemployed or have low incomes
  • Households with multiple children
  • Single-parent households, especially those led by women
  • Women who live alone
  • Men who live alone
  • People or households with disabilities
  • Adults over the age of 60

If you can't get the right amount of food, or enough healthy food, you're more likely to have health problems:

Lifelong disease. Adults in low-income, food-insecure conditions are more likely to get chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

Obesity. Adults and children who have food insecurity may be more likely to be obese because they only have access to unhealthy food or they go through cycles of not having enough food, then overeating. Obesity can affect your physical and mental health as well as your social life. It’s linked to issues like asthma, depression, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Children’s health. Children who live in food-insecure homes are more likely to get sick, have a harder time recovering from sickness, and go to the hospital more often. And if they don’t have the right amount of food, they can also have trouble concentrating in school and may misbehave more or have more emotional problems when they’re young.

Pregnancy risks. Not having enough food to eat can make a pregnant woman go into labor too early or have a baby with a low birth weight. It also might raise the odds of birth defects, anemia, and developmental problems.

Food insecurity also can make health conditions you already have worse. It can lead to underuse or misuse of medications that cost money. When you skip doses or take less than you should, not only can it make your condition worse, it can land you in the hospital and doctor’s office more often, and cause more financial stress.

Community organizations are stepping in to help with food insecurity and support people who struggle with it. Food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and feeding programs all work to supply healthy food and meals.

National government programs can also help address food insecurity. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps people with low incomes afford the food they need. And child nutrition programs, like the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), help make sure children have enough food to grow and learn during and after school.

If you or your family members face food insecurity, there are a few resources and programs available to help you out in the short term. 

They include:

State and local programs. There are several local, state, and federal government programs that can help get you access to basic foods and groceries. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides low-income families extra money for subsidized foods. To be able to access it, you must be at or under 130% of the current poverty line. That means, for a family of three, you’ll need to make under $2,500 a month or less than $30,000 per year. This number can change depending on changes in economic policy and your family size. 

You’ll have to apply for SNAP to get the benefits, and each state has different application rules. You can usually fill out a form on the phone, by mail, or online. If you’re unsure, contact your local SNAP counselor, and they can walk you through it. 

Other federally and locally run nutritional programs like Backpack Program, School Breakfast Program, and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) help provide daily meals at school, nutritionally rich supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education. 

Food banks and other nonprofit organizations. Look up food pantries and food banks in your community. They could be run by local schools, colleges, faith-based institutions like churches and temples, or local charity organizations.

Meal assistance and deliveries for older adults. There are several senior food assistance programs to help people 60 or older. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) is a federal program that sends food boxes each month to those who are 60 or older. 

You can also look up local food pantries, mobile pantries, and home delivery programs that are designed to meet the needs of older people. You might need to meet certain requirements such as income levels, health care issues, or lifestyle limitations to qualify for such services. 

For food assistance, you can also call the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Hunger Hotline at 866-3-HUNGRY (866-348-6479) or 877-8-HAMBRE (877-842-6273). They operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. You can also reach them through an automated text service at  914-342-7744. 

If you’re looking to help those who are food insecure or for policy solutions to reduce the cycle of food insecurity, whether in a big or small way, here’s what you can do:

  • Donate to your local food banks or other food rescue organizations. Donations are not just limited to money or in-person volunteering. You can donate canned foods and other nonperishable items. 
  • Write to or call your local politician or lawmaker. They usually have some power to influence policymakers who control how, where, and to whom food is distributed. You can ask them to fundraise for certain food drives or improve access to certain food rescue organizations. 
  • Call local restaurants, supermarkets, and farmer’s markets and ask how you can help manage or avoid food waste and redirect it to those who need it. 
  • Volunteer your time at a food bank or food rescue organization.
  • Look up a local organization that organizes food drives or meal delivery for kids and older adults.