Food Access and Insecurity:
    Trends from ACS and
    USDA Data

The United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, yet 15.6 million American households were food insecure at some point in 2016. That’s 12.3 percent of the total number of households in the United States. 

A person facing food insecurity is unable to afford or physically access a variety of healthy food. The USDA measures food insecurity via household surveys. People with "very low food security," the most extreme condition, report having to reduce the amount of food they eat, often going hungry as a result.

Food insecurity spiked after the Great Recession in 2008. Since 2011, the percent of food-insecure households has declined significantly—though not quickly enough to return to pre-recession levels, particularly for households facing very low food security. 

How Food Security Varies Across the United States

The poverty rate varies significantly from state to state, as does the cost of living. In addition, at a local level, people may live too far away from stores with healthy foods, even if they can afford to shop there. These three factors combine to form regional variations in food insecurity. 

Helping Families Become Food-Secure

Family households—that is, households that include parents living with their children—are much more likely to face food insecurity than non-family households. 

Connecting families in need with food assistance programs is a major goal of public policy. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—SNAP for short—is the most direct way the federal government helps families afford food costs. SNAP recipients are provided an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card. Each month, the card’s value is replenished. Eligible foods include typical groceries. Non-eligible items include alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, pet foods, soaps, and medicine.

As food insecurity disproportionately affects families, children's access to food while at school is critical. School Food Access Programs, like the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), help bridge the gap between food-secure and food-insecure children in schools. NSLP provides free lunches to children with SNAP. Children may also qualify for free lunches if they are homeless, migrants, or runaway children. In addition, children from families with incomes between 130 to 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals.

The recession and its aftermath triggered enormous increases in the amount spent on SNAP and the NSLP. Total SNAP costs increased from $33.2 billion in 2007 to $70.9 billion in 2016. The cost National School Lunch Program increased from $8.7 billion in 2007 to 13.6 billion in 2016. 

How SNAP Eligibility Varies by State

SNAP eligibility is generally based on income. The baseline requirements limit SNAP eligibility to households at or below 130% of the federal poverty level, along with limitations on other types of assets. 

Many states have implemented Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility to make it easier for their residents—particularly families—to receive SNAP benefits. This policy grants automatic SNAP eligibility to families that already qualify for other assistance programs, such as such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which have less stringent family income limits than SNAP. Some states recently expanded eligibility in this way during the Great Recession and its sluggish recovery. A handful of states, however, have not expanded eligibility. 

Accessing Food: SNAP Stores

Even if SNAP benefits help families afford the food they need, they still need to be able to access healthy food. Many poor families live far from stores that accept SNAP, and many stores do not stock a wide variety of nutritious groceries.

Fortunately, the number of SNAP-approved stores has increased significantly. Such stores also face more stringent nutrition requirements around the type and amount of food they sell. The 2014 Farm Bill required SNAP retailers to increase the variety of foods within each staple food category and narrowing the definition of “staple foods” to exclude items like pizza and “accessory foods” like desserts or snack foods. (This bill expires at the end of 2018 and will need to either be retired or extended.)

Farmers markets and farmers are also increasingly accepting SNAP. According to the USDA, roughly 7,000 farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers accepted SNAP in 2016—over 9 times as many in 2008.

About the Data

Data on household food security is from the USDA Economic Research Service's Food Environment Atlas

Data on family SNAP participation and poverty level is from the American Community Survey, 1-year estimates (2016), tables B22007 (Receipt of Food Stamps/SNAP) and B17022 (Ratio of Income to Poverty).

National School Lunch Program data is from USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Child Nutrition Tables (National School Lunch - Participation and Meals Served).