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Ranges of Food Security and
In 2006, USDA introduced new language to describe ranges of
severity of food insecurity. USDA made these changes in response to
recommendations by an expert panel convened at USDA's request by
the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National
Academies. Even though new labels were introduced, the methods used
to assess households' food security remained unchanged, so
statistics for 2005 and later years are directly comparable with
those for earlier years for the corresponding categories.
USDA's labels describe ranges of food security
- High food security (old label=Food
security): no reported indications of food-access problems or
- Marginal food security (old label=Food
security): one or two reported indications--typically of
anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house.
Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
- Low food security (old label=Food
insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality,
variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of
reduced food intake.
- Very low food security (old label=Food
insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications
of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
CNSTAT Review and
USDA requested the review by CNSTAT to ensure that the
measurement methods USDA uses to assess households' access--or lack
of access--to adequate food and the language used to describe those
conditions are conceptually and operationally sound and that they
convey useful and relevant information to policy officials and the
public. The panel convened by CNSTAT to conduct this study included
economists, sociologists, nutritionists, statisticians, and other
researchers. One of the central issues the CNSTAT panel addressed
was whether the concepts and definitions underlying the measurement
methods--especially the concept and definition of hunger and the
relationship between hunger and food insecurity--were appropriate
for the policy context in which food security statistics are
The CNSTAT panel:
- Recommended that USDA continue to measure and monitor food
insecurity regularly in a household survey.
- Affirmed the appropriateness of the general methodology
currently used to measure food insecurity.
- Suggested several ways in which the methodology might be
refined (contingent on confirmatory research). Research on these
issues is currently underway at ERS.
The CNSTAT panel also recommended that USDA make a clear and
explicit distinction between food insecurity and hunger.
- Food insecurity--the condition assessed in the food security
survey and represented in USDA food security reports--is a
household-level economic and social condition of limited or
uncertain access to adequate food.
- Hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may
result from food insecurity.
The word "hunger," the panel stated in its final report,
"...should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity
that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in
discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual
uneasy sensation." To measure hunger in this sense would require
collection of more detailed and extensive information on
physiological experiences of individual household members than
could be accomplished effectively in the context of the CPS. The
panel recommended, therefore, that new methods be developed to
measure hunger and that a national assessment of hunger be
conducted using an appropriate survey of individuals rather than a
survey of households.
The CNSTAT panel also recommended that USDA consider alternative
labels to convey the severity of food insecurity without using the
word "hunger," since hunger is not adequately assessed in the food
security survey. USDA concured with this recommendation and,
accordingly, introduced the new labels "low food security" and
"very low food security" in 2006.
For more information on CNSTAT Recommendations...
Characteristics of Households With Very
Low Food Security
Conditions reported by households with very low food security
are compared with those reported by food-secure households and by
households with low (but not very low) food security in the
Download chart data in
The defining characteristic of very low food security is that,
at times during the year, the food intake of household members is
reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the
household lacks money and other resources for food. Very low food
security can be characterized in terms of the conditions that
households in this category typically report in the annual food
- 99 percent reported having worried that their food would run
out before they got money to buy more.
- 97 percent reported that the food they bought just did not last
and they did not have money to get more.
- 95 percent reported that they could not afford to eat balanced
- 97 percent reported that an adult had cut the size of meals or
skipped meals because there was not enough money for food.
- 91 percent reported that this had occurred in 3 or more
- 95 percent of respondents reported that they had eaten less
than they felt they should because there was not enough money for
- 65 percent of respondents reported that they had been hungry
but did not eat because they could not afford enough food.
- 48 percent of respondents reported having lost weight because
they did not have enough money for food.
- 27 percent reported that an adult did not eat for a whole day
because there was not enough money for food.
- 21 percent reported that this had occurred in 3 or more
All households without children that were classified as having
very low food security reported at least six of these conditions,
and 66 percent reported seven or more. Food-insecure conditions in
households with children followed a similar pattern.
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