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How Many U.S. Households Face Hunger... and How Often?

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USDA monitors the food security of U.S. households—their consistent access to enough food for active, healthy living—through annual, nationally representative surveys. Statistics based on the December 2002 survey indicate that 89 percent of households were food secure throughout the year. The remaining 11 percent were food insecure at some time during 2002. These households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food. Most food-insecure households avoided hunger by relying on a few basic foods, reducing variety in their diets, or getting emergency food from a food pantry. But 3.8 million households, 3.5 percent of all U.S. households, were food insecure to the extent that one or more household members were hungry at least some time during the year because they could not afford enough food.

What about that qualifying phrase, “at least some time during the year?” How often were people hungry in those 3.8 million households? Was this typically a rare, one-time occurrence, or do some U.S. households regularly face hunger? These are important questions for policymakers who design and manage programs to fight hunger. To answer these questions, ERS analyzed survey responses about how frequently households faced various food-insecure conditions during the year.

Findings include:

  • About a third of the households that registered hunger “at least some time during the year” experienced the condition rarely or occasionally—in 1 or 2 months of the year. The remaining two-thirds experienced the condition in 3 or more months of the year, including about one household in four in which hunger occurred in almost every month.
  • On average, households that were food insecure with hunger experienced this condition for a few days each month in 8 or 9 months of the year.
  • As a result of these temporal patterns, the average monthly and daily prevalences of food insecurity with hunger were lower than the annual rate. During the 30-day period ending in early December 2002, 2.7 percent of U.S. households were food insecure with hunger, compared with the annual rate of 3.5 percent. Average daily prevalence during this period was probably between 0.5 and 0.7 percent.

This article is drawn from...

Household Food Security in the United States, 2002, by Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, USDA, Economic Research Service, October 2003

Overview, by Alisha Coleman-Jensen and Christian Gregory, USDA, Economic Research Service, September 2014