The federal government measures food insecurity through a survey that gathers data, family by family, about what's going on in their lives. I think it's great that the government asks people about their own experience. The questions center on whether they have enough food or if their food runs out, whether they have trouble getting a balanced meal or if they've had to cut back, and simply, whether or not they are hungry. They actually use the word "hunger." If you answer a certain number of these questions affirmatively then you are classified as food insecure. I think we're getting an accurate assessment of what people are facing.
There are multiple reasons why people lack sufficient income to meet their needs, and multiple reasons they go hungry. Some young people who want to work might not have a job because the unemployment rate is high, or there are no jobs availble to them at their skill or education level. Others might fall into poverty because of a medical conditions: they're too sick or injured to work, and they have major costs to cover. They may have a disability that keeps them from having access to the services and support they need. They might be older and isolated in their homes. This is why no one solution fits everyone everyone who is food insecure.
First, access to food. This might start with emergency food networks and nutrition assistance programs to prevent people from going hungry. But we need to have a variety of resources to meet the variety of situations people are facing each day. There's a long-standing tradition in the United States of making efforts to reduce poverty and I feel that tradition has fallen by the wayside.
There is a system in place, but we have to reach the people who are most vulnerable. We have programs for students like universal school breakfasts, special programs for elders or people with disabilities, programs for younger people who are able to work but are facing other challenges. A number of these are smaller programs, however, and have been serving as a substitute for a real strengthening of our social safety net.
Some would say that at least they aren't getting worse, but we still have more than 14% of families facing food insecurity. We need to remember the goal of 6% that we set before, and figure out how to get there. Even though our economists tell us we're in a period of economic expansion, we're still not seeing the rate of food insecurity drop.
Parke Wilde is a food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Previously, he worked for the USDA's Economic Research Service. He received his Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Cornell University. His research addresses food security and hunger measurement, the economics of food assistance programs, and federal dietary guidance policy. Parke blogs at usfoodpolicy.com and authored Food Policy in The Unitred States: An Introduction in 2013.