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Who Are America’s Poor Children?
Examining Food Insecurity Among Children in the United States

Authors: Vanessa R. Wight, Kalyani Thampi, and Jodie Briggs
Publication Date: August 2010

This is an excerpt from the full report.

Introduction

Fourteen million children live in poor families (that is, families with income below the federal poverty level, which is $22,050 a year for a family of four in 2009). There is a wide body of research documenting the importance of family income for children’s health and well-being. Yet, research suggests that families with income twice the poverty threshold experience as many material hardships as poor families, such as food insecurity, inadequate housing, and insufficient health care. These findings are alarming and underscore the degree to which income-based measures of impoverishment mask experiences with material deprivation that are widespread and transcend the standard thresholds that define poverty.

The focus of this report is on one type of material hardship – food insecurity – highlighting an important, but sometimes overlooked, dimension of impoverishment. This topic has taken on added significance recently as overall wealth in the United States is on the rise while record numbers of Americans are experiencing food insecurity, or the lack of consistent access to adequate food. Children exposed to food insecurity are of particular concern given the implications scarce food resources pose to children’s health and well-being. Using data from the 2008 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement, this report examines what is known about food insecurity among children in the United States today, why this social problem warrants our attention, and the policy solutions that might help families minimize the degree to which they and their children experience this material hardship. In the first section, we define the concept and measurement of food insecurity and assess the proportion of households with children who are food insecure today and how that has changed over the last decade. Next we examine the population of households with food insecurity among children – assessing the causes and consequences associated with this material hardship. The report closes with a discussion of public policy approaches to relieve food insecurity.

What is Food Insecurity?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food security is defined as having, “dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.” Conversely, food insecurity, or the lack of consistent access to adequate food, means that the “the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.” The USDA classifies households by the level of food insecurity they have experienced – for example, low or very low food security. The food insecurity status of households with children is further classified by whether it affects only adults or whether it affects children, and by the level of food insecurity among the children.

Estimates of food insecurity in this report are based on a set of 18 questions fielded in the Food Security Supplement of the Current Population Survey. Following the guidelines outlined by the USDA,10 households are food insecure if they respond affirmatively to at least three of the 18 questions. Children’s food security status in the household is based on responses to questions 11 through 18, which ask the main respondent in the household to report on the food security of children. Households reporting between two and four indicators of food insecurity were classified as having low food security among children. Households responding affirmatively on five or more questions are classified as having very low food security among children. The classification food insecurity among children includes both categories. A household’s food security classification generally reflects the most severe food insecurity experienced during the year.

Measuring Food Insecurity in the United States

  1. “We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
  2. “The food that we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
  3. “We couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
  4. In the last 12 months, did you or other adults in the household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
  5. (If yes to Question 4) How often did this happen – almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?
  6. In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
  7. In the last 12 months, were you ever hungry, but didn’t eat, because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
  8. In the last 12 months, did you lose weight because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
  9. In the last 12 months did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
  10. (If yes to Question 9) How often did this happen – almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?
  11. “We relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed our children because we were running out of money to buy food.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
  12. “We couldn’t feed our children a balanced meal, because we couldn’t afford that.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
  13. “The children were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
  14. In the last 12 months, did you ever cut the size of any of the children’s meals because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
  15. 15. In the last 12 months, were the children ever hungry but you just couldn’t afford more food? (Yes/No)
  16. In the last 12 months, did any of the children ever skip a meal because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)
  17. (If yes to Question 16) How often did this happen – almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?
  18. In the last 12 months did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No)