Unit 12. Food and Nutrition Issues

12.6 Hunger and Food Insecurity

Government agencies also play an important role in addressing hunger via federal food-assistance programs. The agencies provide debit cards (formerly distributed in the form of food vouchers or food stamps) to consumers to help them purchase food and they also provide other forms of aid to low-income adults and families who face hunger and nutritional deficits. This topic will be discussed in greater detail later in this section.

What is Hunger?

Hunger has two meanings.  The first relates to appetite and is the body’s response to a need for nourishment. Through stomach  rumbling, the body alerts the brain to eat . This uneasy sensation is easily addressed with a snack or a full meal.  A second definition of  “hunger”  relates to a weakened condition that is a consequence of a prolonged lack of food. People who suffer from this form of hunger typically experience malnourishment, along with poor growth and development.

Adequate food intake that meets nutritional requirements is essential to achieve a healthy, productive lifestyle. However, millions of people in North America, not to mention globally, go hungry and are malnourished each year due to a recurring and involuntary lack of food. The economic crisis of 2008 caused a dramatic increase in hunger across the United States.[1]  The high inflation rates after the pandemic of  2020 has resulted in a similar increase in hunger.

According to the Food and Agriculture of the United nations (FAO),  “close to 12 percent of the global population was severely food insecure in 2020, representing 928 million people – 148 million more than in 2019. [2]”   Although this was a decrease from a historic high of more than one billion people from the ten years earlier ,  it is still an unbearable number.  Every night, millions and millions of people go to sleep hungry due to a lack of the money or resources needed to acquire an adequate amount of food. A number of terms are used to categorize and classify hunger. Two key terms, food security and food insecurity, focus on status and affect hunger statistics. Another term, malnutrition, refers to the deficiencies that a hungry person experiences.

Food Security Versus Food Insecurity

Most American households are considered to be food secure, which means they have adequate access to food and consume enough nutrients to achieve a healthy lifestyle. However, a minority of US households experiences food insecurity at certain points during the year, which means their access to food is limited due to a lack of resources to  meet nutritional needs.

According to the USDA, about 48.8 million people live in food-insecure households and have reported multiple indications of food access problems. About sixteen million of those have “very low food security,” which means one or more people in the household were hungry at some point over the course of a year due to the inability to afford enough food. The difference between low and very low food security is that members of low insecurity households have reported problems of food access, but have reported only a few instances of reduced food intake, if any.[3] African American and Hispanic households experience food insecurity at much higher rates than the national average.[4]

Households with limited resources employ a variety of methods to increase their access to adequate food. Some families purchase junk food and fast food—cheaper options that are also very unhealthy. Other families who struggle with food security supplement the groceries they purchase by participating in government assistance programs. They may also obtain food from emergency providers, such as food banks and soup kitchens in their communities.


A person living in a food-insecure household may suffer from malnutrition, which results from a failure to meet nutrient requirements. This can occur as a result of consuming too little food or not enough key nutrients.

Worldwide, three main groups are most at risk of hunger:

  • the rural poor in developing nations who also lack access to electricity and safe drinking water,
  • the urban poor who live in expanding cities and lack the means to buy food, and
  • victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural and man-made catastrophes.[5]


In the United States, there are additional subgroups that are at risk and are more likely than others to face hunger and malnutrition. They include low-income families and the working poor, who are employed but have incomes below the federal poverty level.

Senior citizens are also a major at-risk group. Many elderly people are frail and isolated, which affects their ability to meet their dietary requirements. In addition, many also have low incomes, limited resources, and difficulty purchasing or preparing food due to health issues or poor mobility. As a result, more than six million senior citizens in the United States face the threat of hunger.[6]

One of the groups that struggles with hunger are the millions of homeless people across North America. According to a recent study by the US Conference of Mayors, the majority of reporting cities saw an increase in the number of homeless families.[7] Hunger and homelessness often go hand-in-hand as homeless families and adults turn to soup kitchens or food pantries or resort to begging for food.

Rising hunger rates in the United States particularly affect children. Nearly one out of four children, or 21.6 percent of all American children, lives in a food-insecure household and spends at least part of the year hungry.[8] Hunger delays their growth and development and affects their educational progress because it is more difficult for hungry or malnourished students to concentrate in school. In addition, children who are undernourished are more susceptible to contracting diseases, such as measles and pneumonia.[9]

Government Food Assistance Programs

Because hunger and food shortages were common during the Great Depression, the federal government established the first Food Stamp Program in 1939.   The  food assistance program was short-lived, ending  in 1943 when the US entered World War II.  Food Stamps were reintroduced during the 1960s then renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008.  Numerous changes have been made to SNAP since that time. [10]  and are similar to the program that exists today. ended a number of programs that work to alleviate hunger and ensure that many low-income families receive the nutrition they require to live a healthy life. Programs designed for children were strengthened by the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This legislation authorized funding and set the policy for several key core programs that provide a safety net for food-insecure children across the United States.

The federal poverty level (FPL) is used to determine eligibility for food-assistance programs. This monetary figure is the minimum amount that a family would need to acquire shelter, food, clothing, and other necessities. It is calculated based on family size and is adjusted for annual inflation. Although many people who fall below the FPL are unemployed, the working poor can qualify for food programs and other forms of public assistance if their income is less than a certain percentage of the federal poverty level, along with other qualifications.  (The first three programs listed below are funded by USDA and the Elderly Nutrition Program is funding through the US Administration on Aging.)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides monthly benefits for low-income households to purchase approved food items at authorized stores. Clients qualify for the program based on available household income, assets, and certain basic expenses. In an average month, SNAP provides benefits to more than forty million people in the United States.[11] The program provides Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT) which work similarly to a debit card. Clients receive a card with a certain allocation of money for each month that can be used only for food. In 2010, the average benefit was about $134 per person, per month and total federal expenditures for the program were $68.2 billion.[12]  Because of skyrocketing inflation  in the 2021, the average benefit increased to an astounding $216 per person.[13]

The Special, Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children

The Special, Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides food packages to pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as to infants and children up to age five, to promote adequate intake for healthy growth and development. Most state WIC programs provide vouchers that participants use to acquire supplemental packages at authorized stores. In 2010, WIC served approximately 9.2 million participants per month at an average monthly cost of about forty-two dollars per person.[14]

The National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) ensure that children in elementary and middle schools receive at least one healthy meal each school day, or two if both the NSLP and SBP are provided. According to the USDA, these programs operate in over 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions.[15] In 2010, the programs provided meals to an average of 31.6 million children each school day. Fifty-six percent of the lunches served were free, and an additional 10 percent were provided at reduced prices.

Senior Nutrition Programs

For many years, we have recognized that good nutrition is essential for healthy aging. However, many older adults are malnourished because of low income, lack of transportation to grocery stores, and declining physical and mental health. To alleviate the problem, the Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Program provides funding to serve a healthy meal five days a week for individuals aged 60 or older.

Since 1972, the Senior Nutrition Program has served hot meals five days a week to many needy senior citizens. Unlike the other food assistance programs, the OAA Nutrition Program is under the direction of the Administration on Aging of the US Department of Health and Human Service, not USDA. The OAA requires that states have designated Area Agencies on Aging that are comprised of several counties in each state. The meal programs are administered under the Area Agencies. The federal government pays for about one-third of the program; the remaining funds are from private grants or other local sources.

Meals are provided in one of two ways, one for the home-bound and the second for those who are healthy enough to eat at a senior center or another community center.

  • Home-delivered meal, sometimes known as Meals on Wheels, helps  sick, home-bound older adults by delivering a hot meal each weekday.  The volunteers who deliver meals to the frail elderly, often visit with the older adult, and ensure the senior citizen is safe.
  • Congregate meals are served at senior centers or a similar facility. In addition to providing a nutritious meal, the congregate meals allow time for older adults to meet and socialize with others.

Note:   Meals on Wheels America is a national organization with about 5,000 members, most are local community-based senior meal programs.  To join, individuals or meal programs pay a membership fee.  It is the oldest and largest organization dedicated to addressing the nutritional needs of senior citizens.

Learning Activities

Technology Note: The second edition of the Human Nutrition Open Educational Resource (OER) textbook features interactive learning activities.  These activities are available in the web-based textbook and not available in the downloadable versions (EPUB, Digital PDF, Print_PDF, or Open Document).

Learning activities may be used across various mobile devices, however, for the best user experience it is strongly recommended that users complete these activities using a desktop or laptop computer.



  1. Hunger in America: 2016 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts. World Hunger Education Service. Retrieved from http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/us_hunger_facts.htm. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  2. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2021. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb4474en
  3. Coleman-Jensen A. Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-125. 2011.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=44909. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  4. Coleman-Jensen A. Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-125. 2011.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=44909. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  5. SOFI: Questions and Answers. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/3/a-BT851E.pdf. Accessed April 15, 208.
  6. About Meals on Wheels. Meals on Wheels. https://www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org/signup/aboutmealsonwheels. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  7. Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities, a 27-City Survey. The United States Conference of Mayors. https://endhomelessness.atavist.com/mayorsreport2016. Accessed April 15, 2018.   
  8. Coleman-Jensen A. Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-125. 2011.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=44909. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  9. 2011 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics. World Hunger Education Service.https://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/old/world%20hunger%20facts%202002in2011.htm. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  10. USDA Food and Nutrition Service. A short history of SNAP. Available at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/short-history-snap#:~:text=In%20efforts%20to%20fight%20stigma,and%20Nutrition%20Act%20of%202008. Accessed August 3, 2022
  11. Coleman-Jensen A. Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-125. 2011.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=44909. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  12. Coleman-Jensen A. Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-125. 2011.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=44909. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  13. A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits. https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/a-quick-guide-to-snap-eligibility-and-benefits. Accessed July 25, 2022.
  14. Coleman-Jensen A. Household Food Security in the United States in 2010. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report, no. ERR-125. 2011.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=44909. Accessed April 15, 2018.
  15. National School Lunch Program. US Department of Agriculture. https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-nslp. Accessed April 15, 2018.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Introduction to Nutrition and Wellness Copyright © 2022 by Janet Colson; Sandra Poirier; and Yvonne Dadson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book