What Is Food Insecurity?

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.

Health Risks of Food Insecurity

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.

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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.

Ways Food Insecurity Is Being Addressed

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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 18, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “About Chronic Disease.”

Feeding America: “Child Nutrition Programs.”

Food Research and Action Center: “Hunger & Health: The Impact of Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Poor Nutrition on Health and Well-Being.”

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Food Insecurity.”

United States Department of Agriculture: “Food Security in the U.S.: Measurement,” “Definitions of Food Insecurity.”

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