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Food Insecurity

This guide explains the meaning of food security/insecurity in homes and on campuses across the US.


The USDA's labels describe ranges of food security:

Food Security
  • High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.

  • Marginal food security (old label=Food security): one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.

Food Insecurity
  • Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.

  • Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

Food Desert

A food desert is a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is alleged to be hard to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile.


What is Food Insecurity?

In 2016, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to 42 million Americans including 13 million children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

It is important to know that hunger and food insecurity are closely related, but distinct, concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the level of the household.

Policy evaluation, through both quantitative and qualitative research, reveals food insecurity to be a complex problem. It does not exist in isolation, as low-income families are affected by multiple, overlapping issues like affordable housing, social isolation, health problems, medical costs, and low wages. Many do not have what they need to meet basic needs and these challenges increase a family’s risk of food insecurity. Effective responses to food insecurity will need to address these overlapping challenges.

Taken together, issues such as affordable housing, social isolation, education level, unemployment or underemployment and food insecurity are important social determinants of health [ii] defined as the “conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” explores the impact of food insecurity as a social determinant of health and its effect on individual and population health outcomes.

Poverty and food insecurity in the United States are closely related.  Not all people living below the poverty line experience food insecurity, and people living above the poverty line can experience food insecurity. Wages and other critical household expenses (such as caring for an ill child) can also help predict food insecurity among people living in the United States. 

Hunger and Health-Feeding America


The U.S. Department of Agriculture measures food security along a scale from “high food security” to “very low food security,” with three categories to indicate levels of food insecurity.

Moderate food security” describes households with some level of concern or challenge in accessing quality food without significant decreases in quality, variety, or quantity. u “Low food security” describes households where quality, variety, and desirability are negatively impacted, but quantity is not. u “Very low food security” indicates decreases in all areas (quality, variety, desirability, quantity) as well as disrupted eating patterns due to inability to access adequate food.

The survey assessed the food security level of the respondents using the questions provided in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Adult Food Security Survey Module.16 Based on their responses to these questions, respondents were given a score of zero through ten. Their food security status was then determined based on their score:

Score of zero – High food security u Score of 1-2 – Marginal food security  .                                                                         

Score of 3-5 – Low food security u Score of 6-10 – Very low food security

Students with a score of three or more were considered “food insecure.” Students with a score of six or more were considered to be “very food insecure” and likely to be suffering from hunger.

Students Against Hunger

Five reasons students on college campuses are struggling to afford food

1. Rising tuition costs.

2. College meal plans are expensive.

3. Even when you have a meal plan, food isn’t always available. 

4. The “traditional” college student is changing.

5. Colleges don’t know students are going hungry. 

Why college students are food insecure | Feeding America

Recent research article: Food Insecurity Among College Students: Background and Policy Options June 9, 2021 R46817 ( 

Welcome to, a global movement of millions of young people making positive change, online and off! The 11 facts you want are below, and the sources for the facts are at the very bottom of the page. After you learn something, Do Something! Find out how to take action here.  

  1. “Food deserts” are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options (aka fresh fruits and veggies) is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away. Run a food drive (outside your local grocery store!) to support a food bank. 
  2. About 23.5 million people live in food deserts. Nearly half of them are also low-income.
  3. Approximately 2.3 million people (2.2% of all US households) live in low-income, rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket.
  4. Food deserts may be under-reported because the North American Industry Classification System places small corner grocery stores (which often primarily sell packaged food) in the same category as grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods.
  5. Residents living in food deserts also have a hard time finding foods that are culturally relevant and that meet their dietary restrictions.
  6. First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight childhood obesity, “Let’s Move,” has a goal of eradicating food deserts by 2017.
  7. There is a $400 million investment from the government towards this initiative, which will go towards providing tax breaks for supermarkets that open in food deserts.
  8. You can find food deserts near you with the USDA’s new food desert locator map.
  9. People living in the poorest SES (social-economic status) areas have 2.5 times the exposure to fast-food restaurants as those living in the wealthiest areas.
  10. With limited options, many people living in food deserts get meals from fast-food restaurants.
  11. Food insecurity has a high correlation with increased diabetes rates. In Chicago, the death rate from diabetes in a food desert is twice that of areas with access to grocery stores.

Do Something

Interactive map of Food Deserts in the US. USDA ERS - Go to the Atlas

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eBooks + Books

Discover eBook collections or find print books/materials through the catalog for each campus:


Suggested Websites

How Food Insecurities Increase Obesity Rates

A Move for Hunger (non-profit) website article that discusses the connection between food safety and obesity rates.

USDA - Defines Food Insecurity

Information on USDA definitions pertaining to food insecurity.

Food Justice -- Food Print

Tips, tools, and guides for reducing your foodprint; a non-profit site dedicated to food prodcution education.

Map of Food Deserts and Food Access

A USDA atlas of food access statistics by geographic region.


Food pantries are appearing more frequently in a surprising type of location: colleges and universities. More than 700 educational institutions belong to a national nonprofit aiming to alleviate food insecurity among college students. From PBS station WTTW in Chicago, Brandis Friedman reports on how City Colleges and the Greater Chicago Food Depository are providing nutrition along with knowledge.

Hunger in Nebraska; where it happens, who is impacted, what is being done about it. Plus a Nebraska history moment.