What is Food Insecurity Exactly?

You have probably heard the term “food insecurity” before, but you may be wondering what it means. So, what is food insecurity exactly?

Many people can go to a grocery store or supermarket to buy the food they need. However, not everyone enjoys this privilege. When people do not have access to a sufficient supply of healthy food, it’s called “food insecurity.” The term is more specifically defined as not having consistent access to enough nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food due to lack of money and other resources.

Empty wallet

Food insecurity is divided into two categories by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Low food security. You generally get enough food but do not have many choices. This means you have to eat food that may not be very appealing to your tastes or is of lower quality.
Very low food security. This is when you can’t get enough food to feed yourself and your family, or you have to eat less or even skip meals because you don’t have enough money or other means to get it.

Food insecurity may be temporary or long-term, and it does not always happen on its own. Low-income families can be affected by multiple and overlapping issues, such as social isolation, lack of affordable housing, low wages, and high medical costs. In fact, it was recorded that about 17.4 million households in the US were food insecure for some time in 2014. Do take note, however, that while food insecurity does not mean the same thing as hunger, it can be a resulting effect of food insecurity.

As long as we’re wondering about the meaning of food insecurity, we should also be asking how it’s measured. Most hunger-relief non-profit organizations use measurements conducted by the USDA annually. Each year, thousands of households are asked to respond to a short survey with ten questions and eight additional questions for families with children.

Family with a child

The questions help the USDA identify various indicators of food insecurity, ranging from the least severe to the most severe. After the answers are collected, the USDA categorizes households into four classifications of food security: very low food security, low food security, marginal food security, and high food security. Households that experience three or more indicators are considered low food security. Households with three indicators of food insecurity and reports of skipping meals are considered to have very low food security.

What is most affected by the impact of food insecurity?

Health and hunger are very closely connected. Food insecurity is often linked to many serious effects on a person’s overall health. People who are considered food insecure are more likely to be affected by chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. So, to better understand the answer to the question, “what is food insecurity?”, we should also be asking, “who is affected by food insecurity?’

According to Feeding America, food insecurity can impact anyone and everyone—no matter their age, gender, or race. However, its effects are far more devastating on children, as a lack of nutritious food can have severe effects on their growth and development, as well as their academic achievement, mental health, and future economic prosperity.

Research shows that there is a correlation between food insecurity and delayed development in very young children. It also increases their risk of developing chronic illnesses, such as anemia and asthma. School-aged children may also be afflicted by behavioral problems, such as anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity.

What are the associated health risks of food insecurity?

Food insecurity is associated with various health risks, including:

Obesity. Both children and adults who suffer from food insecurity have a higher risk of becoming obese because they only have access to calorie-dense foods that lack the nutrients their body needs. They may also go through cycles where they skip meals when they don’t have enough food and then overeat when they do. Obesity can seriously affect a person’s mental and physical health, as well as their social life. It’s also linked to health issues like depression, asthma, and high blood pressure.
Lifelong diseases. Families in low-income, food-insecure conditions have a higher chance of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

TItle in newspaper - Cancer
Poor children’s health. Children living in food-insecure households are much more likely to get sick more frequently than food-secure households. There’s also a greater chance they will be hospitalized as a result of their illness because their body lacks the strength necessary to recover on its own. Children who don’t get enough food will also find it hard to concentrate in class. This can cause them to have emotional problems or misbehave more when they’re at school.
Pregnancy risks. It’s possible for pregnant women to have premature labor or give birth to low-birth-weight babies if they don’t have enough healthy food to eat. Food insecurity can also raise the odds of anemia, birth defects, and other developmental problems for expecting mothers.

What is transitory food insecurity?

Food security analysts divide food insecurity into two types: chronic and transitory.

Chronic food insecurity is a persistent or long-term problem where people are unable to meet their minimum food requirements. This often results from extended periods of poverty, lack of personal assets, and decreased access to financial resources.

Transitory food insecurity, on the other hand, is a temporary or short-term problem. It happens when there is a cyclical pattern of insufficient access to food, as a sudden drop in the availability of produce or access to enough food in order to maintain good nutritional status.

How can a family be considered food secure?

Households are often described as either “food insecure” or “food secure” but it’s not always so black and white. The four levels of food security best describe the range of a household’s experience in accessing enough food.

High food security. Households that experience no problems or anxiety related to their access to adequate food.
Marginal food security. Households may experience occasional problems or anxiety about the availability of enough food, but there is no substantial reduction in the quality, quantity, or variety of their diet.

Various vegetables
Low food security. Households with reduced variety, quality, and desirability of their diets, but there is no substantial change in their normal eating patterns and quantity.
Very low food security. Households wherein one or more members’ eating patterns are disrupted or drastically reduced at certain times of the year due to insufficient funds or resources for food.

Moldy rooted potatoes

What is being done to address food insecurity?

Food insecurity is a persistent problem for many households all over the world. It’s not an easy problem to solve—but it’s not impossible. First, you need to understand its root cause in order to address it properly. This means improving behaviors and systems to enable availability, access, and proper distribution of food.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) address major global challenges by tackling problems, such as inequality, poverty, and peace, in order to establish a brighter future for everyone. All in all, there are 17 sustainable development goals. And, one of them aims to achieve zero hunger by 2030. It calls for a re-examination of how foods are produced and consumed globally. It also aims to address core issues in global food and agriculture systems, such as gender equality and crop biodiversity. This way, more food is produced and more jobs are created within the industry at the same time.
Moreover, a side effect of greater agricultural biodiversity is a healthier diet. It also provides women access to the same farming resources as men. All of these working together can help as many as 150 million people avoid living in hunger.

It’s also vital that we support small farmers, as they produce up to 80% of the food in developing countries. World hunger solutions are also deeply rooted in education. Both local and national governments need to invest in educating communities on proper nutrition, as well as effective and sustainable farming practices to help support healthy and sustainable lifestyles.


Food insecurity remains a global problem. Climate change is negatively affecting fishers and farmers worldwide; the world is plagued with poverty, and conflicts in many countries are taking away people’s safe access to healthy food. All these factors contribute to the global food insecurity problem. Fortunately, the efforts of many international, national, and local organizations, like Food for Life (FFL) Global, to reduce food insecurity are making remarkable progress.

FFL is passionate in their belief that no one should go hungry, especially children. This belief is shared by their volunteers, which is why they are prepared to go anywhere they’re needed to share food. They also provide food relief for regions struck by disaster.

FFL volunteers have been to war-torn countries to distribute food relief. They were there when an earthquake devastated Latur, India in 1993. They didn’t hesitate to drive 300 kilometers just to be on the scene to supply meals, medical supplies, and clothing to the distressed villagers.

The battle against food insecurity is a long and difficult one. But with the determination, dedication, and commitment of organizations like FFL, winning the fight is not an impossible goal.

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Support the important work of Food for Life Global to serve its international network of over 200 affiliates in 60 countries.
Food for Life Global is a 501(c) (3) charitable organization, EIN 36-4887167. All donations are deemed tax-deductible absent any limitations on deductibility applicable to a particular taxpayer. No goods or services were provided in exchange for your contribution.

Food For Life Global’s primary mission is to bring about peace and prosperity in the world through the liberal distribution of pure plant-based meals prepared with loving intention.

Paul Turner

Paul Turner

Paul Turner co-founded Food for Life Global in 1995. He is a former monk, a veteran of the World Bank, entrepreneur, holistic life coach, vegan chef, and author of 6 books, including, FOOD YOGA, 7 maxims for soul happiness.

MR. Turner has traveled to 72 countries over the last 35 years helping to establish Food for Life projects, train volunteers, and document their success.

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