Food Insecurity and Hunger in the United States: An Assessment
of the Measure (download the full report)
An assessment of USDA's food security measurement and monitoring
methods by the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT), an arm of
the National Research Council (a body of the National Academies)
concluded that food insecurity and hunger are important to measure,
that the current measurement of food insecurity should be
continued, but that consideration should be given to strengthening
the measure in several ways and that a different methodology for
measuring hunger should be developed. The report is the product of
an extensive review by an independent expert panel. USDA requested
the Committee on National Statistics to convene this panel in the
interest of ensuring that USDA's data collection and methodology in
the areas of food security and hunger are relevant and
What Are the Issues?
To inform policymakers and the public about the extent to which
U.S. households consistently have economic access to enough food,
ERS publishes an annual statistical report on household food
security in the United States. The reports are based on data
collected in a national food security survey conducted as an annual supplement to
the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The food security
reports and the underlying data are widely used by government
agencies, the media, and advocacy groups to report the extent of
food insecurity in the U.S., to monitor the progress toward
national objectives, and to monitor the performance of USDA's food
The terms "household food security," "food insecurity," and
"food insecurity with hunger," which are used to describe
households' access--or lack of access--to adequate food, are
relatively new to both policymakers and the public. Concerns have
arisen about whether USDA's concepts and measurement of food
insecurity and hunger are appropriate for the policy contexts in
which they are used.
How Was the Study Conducted?
ERS, in partnership with the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS),
the agency that administers USDA's food assistance programs, asked
the Committee on National Statistics to convene an expert panel to
examine the concepts and methodology for measuring food insecurity
and hunger and the uses of those measures. Specific uses include
monitoring food security conditions, assessing the performance of
food assistance programs, and conducting related research. The
panel was made up of economists, sociologists, nutritionists, and
other researchers. This report presents findings of the panel and
recommendations to USDA to improve and strengthen the measure.
What Did the Study Find?
Following are the recommendations as summarized in the
Concepts and Definitions
Recommendation 3-1: USDA should continue to measure and monitor
food insecurity regularly in a household survey. Given that hunger
is a separate concept from food insecurity, USDA should undertake a
program to measure hunger, which is an important potential
consequence of food insecurity.
Recommendation 3-2: To measure hunger, which is an individual
and not a household construct, USDA should develop measures for
individuals on the basis of a structured research program, and
develop and implement a modified or new data gathering mechanism.
The first step should be to develop an operationally feasible
concept and definition of hunger.
Recommendation 3-3: USDA should examine in its research program
ways to measure other potential, closely linked, consequences of
food insecurity, in addition to hunger, such as feelings of
deprivation and alienation, distress, and adverse family and social
Recommendation 3-4: USDA should examine alternate labels to
convey the severity of food insecurity without the problems
inherent in the current labels. Furthermore, USDA should explicitly
state in its annual reports that the data presented in the report
are estimates of prevalence of household food insecurity and not
prevalence of hunger among individuals.
Recommendation 4-1: USDA should determine the best way to
measure frequency and duration of household food insecurity. Any
revised or additional measures should be appropriately tested
before implementing them in the Household Food Security Survey
Recommendation 4-2: USDA should revise the wording and ordering
of the questions in the Household Food Security Survey Module.
Examples of possible revisions that should be considered include
improvements in the consistent treatment of reference periods,
reference units, and response options across questions. The revised
questions should reflect modern cognitive questionnaire design
principles and new data collection technology and should be tested
prior to implementation.
Item Response Theory and Food Insecurity
Recommendation 5-1: USDA should consider more flexible
alternatives to the dichotomous Rasch model, the latent variable
model that underlies the current food insecurity classification
scheme. The alternatives should reflect the types of data collected
in the Food Security Supplement. Alternative models that should be
formally compared include:
- Modeling ordered polytomous item responses by ordered
polytomous rather than dichotomized item response functions.
- Treating items with frequency follow-up questions
appropriately, for example, as a single ordered polytomous item
rather than as two independent questions.
- Allowing the item discrimination parameters to differ from item
to item when indicated by relevant data.
Recommendation 5-2: USDA should undertake the following
additional analyses in the development of the underlying latent
- Fitting models that allow for different latent distributions
for households with children and those without children and
possibly other subgroups of respondents.
- Fitting models that allow for different item parameters for
households with and without children for the questions that are
appropriate for all households in order to study the possibility
and effects of differential item functioning.
- Studying the stability of the measurement system over time,
possibly using the methods of differential item functioning.
Recommendation 5-3: To implement the underlying latent variable
model that results from the recommended research, USDA should
develop a new classification system that reflects the measurement
error inherent in latent variable models. This can be accomplished
by classifying households probabilistically along the latent scale,
as opposed to the current practice of deterministically using the
observed number of affirmations. Furthermore, the new
classification system should be more closely tied to the content
and location of food insecurity items along the latent scale.
Recommendation 5-4: USDA should study the differences between
the current classification system and the new system, possibly
leading to a simple approximation to the new classification system
for use in surveys and field studies.
Recommendation 5-5: USDA should consider collecting data on the
duration of spells of food insecurity in addition to the currently
measured intensity and frequency measures. Measures of frequency
and duration of spells may be used independently of the latent
variable measuring food insecurity.
Survey Vehicles to Measure Food Insecurity and Hunger
Recommendation 6-1: USDA should continue to collaborate with the
National Center for Health Statistics to use the National Health
and Nutrition Examination Survey to conduct research on methods of
measuring household food insecurity and individual hunger and the
consequences for nutritional intake and other relevant health
Recommendation 6-2: USDA should carefully review the strengths
and weakness of the National Health Interview Survey in relation to
the Current Population Survey in order to determine the best
possible survey vehicle for the Food Security Supplement at a
future date. In the meantime, the Food Security Supplement should
continue to be conducted in the Current Population Survey.
Recommendation 6-3 :USDA should explore the feasibility of
funding a one-time panel study, preferably using the Survey of
Income and Program Participation, to establish the relationship
between household food insecurity and individual hunger and how
they co-evolve with income and health.
Download the full report from the National Academies'
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