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When I Was Hungry

“For I was hungry and you gave me food…”

 

The first challenge of our Lord in Matthew 25 is to feed the hungry and there is much hunger in our world today. In this thread of the Matthew 25 series we will explore the issue of hunger. On this page we explore the language currently in use by many researchers and policymakers. Definitions are key to understanding the empirical analysis, as well as to engage in more targeted policy recommendations. Please explore the tabs below to learn more about hunger and how we are called to respond to those who are hungry.

Terminology

Hunger and food security are issues that the United States and the world has faced since the dawn of mankind.  Despite declines in poverty across the entire world since the 1950’s, there are still many families in the United States who struggle to maintain the high standard of living which has come to dominate mainstream American households and communities.  That is not to say that all hope is lost.  In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that the percentage of American households in 2018 who suffered from food security is down, for the first time, to the pre-recession level of food security of 11.1 percent (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory, & Singh, 2019).  This is good news for the country as a whole, but the challenge of very low food security, which continued to plateau in 2018, remains prevalent for an estimated 3.5 percent of American households (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, et al., 2019).  This begs the question, what is hunger and food security?  What is the difference between the two?  And how do we determine who is low food secure and who is very low food secure?

Hunger and food security are related but ultimately different concepts.  Whereas hunger is described as “the uneasy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food,” food security is best defined as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways” (Anderson, 1990, p. 1598).  This clarification is important for our understanding of the overarching issue and how to approach it.  For instance, separating the two terms denotes hunger as a potential consequence which is caused when one is food insecure.  In the past, the haziness of definitions hindered policy makers and researchers from correctly identifying and addressing food security which can produce hunger (Anderson, 1990).  Fortunately, contemporary researchers and policy makers regularly prescribe to the provided definition; thereby, allowing them to better capture the issue and develop more innovative solutions.

 

Anderson, S. A. (1990). Core Indicators of Nutritional State for Difficult-to-Sample Populations. The Journal of Nutrition, 120(suppl_11), 1555–1600. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/120.suppl_11.1555

Coleman-Jensen, A., Gregory, C. A., & Rabbitt, M. P. (2019). What Is Food Security?

Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C., & Singh, A. (2019). Household food security in the United States in 2018. In United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Report Number 270.

Measuring Food Security

To better capture the scope of food security, the USDA created an 18 question scale that is commonly deployed in food security research and is regularly deployed in the Food Security Supplement of the Current Population Survey.  These questions, such as “Do your children ever eat less than you feel they should because there is not enough money for food?” help flesh out the severity of one’s food security (Anderson, 1990, p. 1576).  Depending on the responses, the USDA is able to categorize a food insecure household as having either “low food security” or “very low food security” (Coleman-Jensen, Gregory, & Rabbitt, 2019).  The former category refers to a reduction in either the quality, variety, or desirability of food consumption within the last year whereas the latter bears the same definition with the additive that one’s regular eating patterns were disrupted or reduced due to a lack of resources or money to purchase food (Coleman-Jensen, Gregory, et al., 2019). Households are then labeled as having high food security, low food security, or very low security, based on their responses to the 18 question scale. Generally, households labeled as having low or very low food security are considered food insecure.

Furthermore, food security is divided into three levels which help researchers analyze and measure the various scales of food security: community, individual, and household.  Each of these levels has its own characteristics which sometimes overlap (Anderson, 1990).  Food security in a community, for example, is measured by the quality and quantity of food available, the physical accessibility to stores and distributors, and the affordability of food which also includes relative price to other household expenses and what is typical in the area.   On the individual level, researchers take a more detailed look at the individual’s adequate energy intake, nutrient intake, deprivation or restriction of food variety or choice, and normal or regular eating patterns.  Lastly, on a household basis, the household’s ability to replenish its food store, the quality and safety of food, and the source of food, whether conventional or otherwise, are key measurements (Anderson, 1990).  These distinct levels with their corresponding measurements are used to guide surveys and other research strategies in better capturing the scale and scope of food security.  Thus, policy makers can direct policy to address identified and targeted contributions to food security.  For instance, if an urban community suffers from being a food desert, a place where there are no or few stores dedicated to selling staple groceries, this quality would be captured as a measured value.  From that point, policy makers can work with urban planners or city officials in drafting policy, zoning ordinances, or incentives to attract grocery suppliers into that area.

 

Anderson, S. A. (1990). Core Indicators of Nutritional State for Difficult-to-Sample Populations. The Journal of Nutrition, 120(suppl_11), 1555–1600. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/120.suppl_11.1555

Coleman-Jensen, A., Gregory, C. A., & Rabbitt, M. P. (2019). What Is Food Security?

Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C., & Singh, A. (2019). Household food security in the United States in 2018. In United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Report Number 270.

Complexity of Food Security

Despite researchers and policy makers having a powerful tool to distinguish the prevalence of food security in different levels, measuring food security is much more complicated for a myriad of intersecting factors.  Anderson (1990) describes those who are most affected by food security as difficult-to-sample population.  Difficult-to-sample populations tend to be individuals or groups who are hard to distinguish from larger survey samples based on several characteristics or traits.  Typically, they range from only representing 1 out of 100 or even 1 out of 1000 in the total population (Anderson, 1990).  Consequently, these groups are hard to identify, survey, and target with appropriate public policy or programs.  In other words, the stories of these difficult-to-sample populations are hard to unfold with preexisting survey data.

On average, difficult-to-sample population are more prone to low food security and very low food security.  These groups include families with household incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households with children, households with single mothers or fathers, households of those living alone, households with Black/African American or Hispanic heads of house, or households in large urban environments (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, et al., 2019).  In addition, nearly 56 percent of households who reported having been food insecure at least once in 2018 also reported taking part in at least one of the major three Federal Aid program (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, et al., 2019).  This means that more than half of the households who reported being food insecure during the year already receive federal assistance to some degree.  Other studies include the disabled, those with drug addictions or alcoholism, and the homeless as amongst those who are most prone to low and very low food security (Citro, House, & Kirkendall, 2013).  These groups are also counted in the difficult-to-sample populations as it is often challenging or near impossible to survey and collect data that captures their personal stories.

In addition, food security is commonly a by-product of other problems in an individual’s life.  Some studies find that households with incarcerated parents, parents with disabilities, consistent eviction or residence relocation, and other complicated household structures or struggles are more vulnerable to becoming food insecure (Citro et al., 2013).  These characteristics are correlated with the experience of food insecurity.  With this in mind, the roots of food security run much deeper than a narrow approach of isolating a single factor such as inadequate income, increased food prices, or other related economic and social factors including geography and income volatility. 

 

Anderson, S. A. (1990). Core Indicators of Nutritional State for Difficult-to-Sample Populations. The Journal of Nutrition, 120(suppl_11), 1555–1600. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/120.suppl_11.1555

Citro, C. F., House, C. C., & Kirkendall, N. J. (2013). Research Opportunities Concerning the Causes and Consequences of Child Food Security and Hunger: : A Workshop Summary. In Research Opportunities Concerning the Causes and Consequences of Child Food Security and Hunger: : A Workshop Summary (pp. 76–93). Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Gregory, C. A., & Rabbitt, M. P. (2019). What Is Food Security?

Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C., & Singh, A. (2019). Household food security in the United States in 2018. In United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Report Number 270.