What Is Food Insecurity?

Cans of food at the food bank

Getty / Matt Cardy

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Food insecurity is a global problem impacting individuals and families of all economic backgrounds. It occurs when people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle due to inadequate resources or limited access to safe and nutritious foods.

Food insecurity has numerous health-related consequences including poor physical and mental health, lower academic achievement in children, and chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Food insecurity is also known as “food poverty.” In general, it is not the same as a food shortage, which describes a situation when there are too few food items available in a specific area. Food insecurity occurs when sufficient food supplies exist but remain inaccessible to particular individuals and families due to economic constraints such as poverty or unemployment.

History of Food Insecurity

Food insecurity has a long and problematic history—it is not a new phenomenon. In the United States, it can be traced back to colonial times when farmers faced cycles of abundant and scarce harvests. The Great Depression in the 1930s exacerbated food insecurity as many people lost their jobs and income sources. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in response to growing concern about food insecurity. Since then, poverty has consistently been linked to food insecurity and hunger.

Today, more than 40 million people in the United States struggle with food insecurity—nearly one in eight households. The issue affects individuals and families of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities but is most prevalent among households with children or elderly members; low-wage workers; people living in rural areas; and racial and ethnic minorities. Additionally, women are disproportionately affected by food insecurity.

Signs of Food Insecurity

Signs of food insecurity include skipping meals; reducing portion sizes at meal times; having to choose between paying for food and other basic needs such as rent or electricity; relying on food pantries, soup kitchens, and free meal programs; and being unable to afford a balanced diet.

Below is a list of some other signs of food insecurity:

  • Shifting meal patterns—skipping meals, eating smaller meals, or relying on less expensive items like macaroni and cheese instead of healthier foods.
  • Inability to store food—food may spoil quickly due to lack of refrigeration or other storage solutions.
  • Low energy levels—lack of nutritious foods can lead to fatigue, headaches, and other health issues.
  • Worrying about running out of foodconstant concern about having enough food for the family.
  • Physical changes—weight loss or gain due to insufficient access to healthy diets.

These signs are not always easy to spot in someone else’s life, but being aware of them can enable people to identify food insecurity in their own lives or those of others and provide assistance if needed.

Types of Food Insecurity

There are two types of food insecurity: persistent and transient.

Persistent Food Insecurity

This type occurs when individuals experience persistent hunger, malnutrition, and other health problems associated with inadequate access to nutritious foods. It typically affects people over a long period of time due to poverty or unemployment.

Transient Food Insecurity

This type is more common and is usually caused by temporary economic hardship such as job loss or illness. Transient food insecurity can be addressed more quickly because it only lasts for a short time.

Impact of Food Insecurity

The impact of food insecurity is far-reaching and can have serious physical, mental, and social consequences for individuals and their families. Below are some of the ways in which food insecurity can affect people:

  • Poor physical health—food insecurity can lead to malnourishment and nutrient deficiencies, which can increase the risk of illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions. It can also worsen existing health conditions.
  • Mental health problems—food insecurity has been associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other mental health issues in adults as well as children.
  • Learning problemsDevelopmental delays or learning difficulties in children due to poor nutrition.
  • Social isolation—it can create feelings of isolation due to embarrassment or shame about not having enough money to buy food or participate in activities with others. In addition, it puts a strain on family relationships—parents may feel guilty for not being able to provide for their children and may struggle with feelings of helplessness.
  • Increased risk for substance abuse—hunger and poverty can lead individuals to turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort.

Tips for Reducing Food Insecurity

Reducing food insecurity is a complex task, but there are steps people can take to make a difference. Here are some tips for individuals and communities looking to reduce food insecurity:

  • Support food banks and other organizations that provide meals or groceries to those in need.
  • Encourage local businesses to donate unsold items to food banks or other organizations.
  • Advocate for public policies that prioritize access to nutritious foods in areas where food deserts exist.
  • Volunteer at soup kitchens, shelters, or other local organizations providing meals for the hungry in your community.
  • Educate yourself and others about the signs of food insecurity and how to identify it in your own life or that of another person.
  • Start a community garden to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need.
  • Donate money or other items (e.g., canned goods, non-perishable foods) to organizations providing meals for the hungry in your community.
  • Create a support system of family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers who can help provide resources or meals when needed.
  • Provide emotional support and understanding to those going through food insecurity—listen without judgment or offering unsolicited advice.
  • Encourage public discussion about food insecurity—raise awareness by starting conversations with friends and family about the issue.

Food insecurity is a serious issue that affects millions of people around the world. It can have devastating physical, mental, and social consequences for individuals and their families. Taking steps to reduce food insecurity—such as donating, volunteering, advocating for policy change, and creating support systems—can make a difference in the lives of those experiencing this issue.

If you are going through food insecurity yourself or know someone who is, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Organizations like Feeding America can provide assistance and resources.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."