box of zucchini and cauliflower

What is food insecurity? Food security?

Food insecurity has largely replaced hunger as the primary focus of organizing, action, and policy surrounding food access. But what is it and where does it come from?

Produce from one of our harvest gleans

What is food insecurity?

Since we talk about food security and food insecurity quite a bit here at Food Forward, we thought it would be helpful to define both terms, what they mean, and how we measure them. Here’s our definition: food insecurity refers to a lack of access to enough good, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. There’s a lot going on there, so let’s unpack it a bit.

Enough: this one’s the easiest. Everyone needs to eat, and we all need to eat a certain amount to stay healthy, active, and happy.

Good: this is where things get a bit hairy (or pear-y). Good is a relative word. What’s good food for you might not be good food to your friend, sibling, neighbor, or co-worker. Moreover, throughout history those with power have frequently used patriarchal justifications about what is “good” to force other people to conform to the dominant culture and standards. But instead of ignoring the vagueness of this term, we should embrace it! Everybody deserves to eat food that they think is good, right? Nobody should have to eat peas if they hate peas but love carrots (Mom & Dad, are you reading this?).

Healthy: we love healthy food here! Healthy food is nutritious and sustaining. It’s full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, energy, and all the other things that our bodies need to be happy.

Culturally appropriate: like “good”, this term brings us back into the subjective realm. Having access to culturally appropriate food means that people have food that they are familiar and comfortable with. It’s knowing how to shop for it or select it, prepare and cook it, and how to enjoy it! Part of this is availability of familiar foods & varieties, but it also could include things like the language of the label and instructions.

What is food security?

The definition of food security is, as you might imagine, just the opposite! Food security means having reliable access to enough good, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. It means that you or your family aren’t worried about paying for groceries, where your next meal might come from, or cutting back on food in order to pay the bills.

Food security is related to all sorts of other great and wonderful ideals like food justice, food sovereignty, and food equity. While food security is certainly a crucial part of these, concepts such as food justice and food sovereignty tend to have broader social, economic, and cultural implications. So food security is an important part of food justice, but not the whole of it.

Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust & Umma Health Clinic's Free Market

The Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust & Umma Community Clinic uses produce from Food Forward’s Wholesale Recovery Program to run a free pop-up farmers market.

What’s the difference between food insecurity and hunger?

While food security and hunger are related, they are not the same. In fact, the USDA recently removed references to hunger in their food security measurements, citing the need for a separate and more detailed study on hunger. Here are some key differences between the two:

First, food security is socio-economic (financial and cultural), while hunger is physiological (physical). Studies on food security attempt to measure reliable access to food, with questions that include anxiety over shopping, budgeting for healthy meals, and running out of food. Hunger, on the other hand, is a physical sensation. We could say that hunger is one potential consequence of food insecurity, but food insecurity does not always result in hunger.

Second, we measure food security at the household level and hunger at the individual level. A family experiencing food insecurity may have some members that go hungry and others who do not. For example, parents in food insecure families might have enough food to feed their children, but might experience hunger themselves.

How do we measure food insecurity?

So, with all this talk about what it is, how do we actually measure something like food insecurity. Food Forward and most other hunger-relief nonprofits rely on measurements that the USDA conducts annually. Every year tens of thousands of households respond to their short survey, which is added onto the census.

There are only 10 questions, and an additional 8 questions for families with children. The questions ask about various indicators of food insecurity, ranging from the least severe (“We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more”) to the most severe (“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”).

Once the answers are collected, the USDA groups households into the 4 classifications of food security: high food security, marginal food security, low food security, and very low food security. Households are considered to have low food security if they reported experiencing 3 or more indicators of food insecurity. Households are considered to have very low food security if they reported 3 indicators of food insecurity AND some degree of eating less than they should / skipping meals.

A box full of tomatoes from the Farmers Market

Keeping it simple

This system of measuring food security allows families to self-report their own experiences, and also keeps the results very clear. It gives us a very simple measurement to look at: what percent of households reported 3 or more indicators of food insecurity. This keeps things easy for those of us who care – individuals, volunteers, policy makers, students, you and me – to understand.

But despite how simple it may seem, the study is actually quite complex! Years and years of research have gone into defining and refining the questions and analysis of results. While some people might think that the simplicity of the method leads to less reliable results, in fact that’s not the case at all (if you don’t believe me, you can read this 130 page statistical analysis and report!). The study keeps our understanding of food security and food insecurity clear and accurate.

Why talk about food security at all?

Food security and food insecurity are really important concepts for us to think and talk about. By moving the discussion of food policy beyond hunger (which again, refers only to a physical sensation), food insecurity captures the reality of individuals and families who struggle to get enough food.

Finally, these terms give us a working definition and standard for measurement. This allows community organizers, non-profit leaders, policy makers, and government officials to talk with each other and work together to create plans that will improve overall access to food, health, and wellness. Because even as we dive into definitions, studies, and statistics, the overall goal is to secure everyone’s right to eat well and be well.

Learn more about our fight against food insecurity

Food Forward produce at a free pop-up farmers market at Santa Monica College

Pop-up farmers market for students and community members at Santa Monica College