Food, Nutrition, and Food Safety

(Selected research findings from FY18)

An estimated 88.2 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2016, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.

The remaining households (11.8 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 4.9 percent with very low food security because the household lacked money and other resources for food, resulting in reduced food intake and disruptions in eating patterns for one or more household members. Declines from 2016 in food insecurity overall and in very low food security were statistically significant. The rate of food insecurity declined from 12.3 percent in 2016, and very low food security declined from 4.9 percent, continuing downward trends. Among children, changes from 2016 in food insecurity and very low food security were not statistically significant. Children and adults were food insecure in 7.7 percent of U.S. households with children in 2017, versus 8.0 percent in 2016. The ERS food security statistics are widely recognized as the benchmark for measuring food security in the U.S., and support decision making on USDA food and nutrition assistance programs.

help wanted and SNAP signs in store windowWhen labor market conditions were measured at the local level in Oregon, researchers estimated a greater responsiveness by SNAP recipients to labor market conditions, as opposed to what has been measured at the State or national levels.

Using three different measures of labor market conditions—the unemployment rate, employment aggregates, and new hires—local labor market conditions were strongly linked to the probability of leaving SNAP in Oregon using SNAP administrative data. Labor market conditions showed the largest effects on SNAP spell lengths when using commuting zones, which capture areas where people both live and work. The results show that 3 in 5 SNAP recipients left the program within a year or less. When labor market conditions were measured using commuting zones, a 10-percent increase in aggregate employment raised the share of recipients who finished their SNAP spell in 12 months or less by about 8.8 percent. Increases in total employment and new hires in the manufacturing, food service, and lodging industries were associated with a higher probability of able-bodied, working-age adults exiting SNAP.

Food away from home has become increasingly integral to the American diet.

In 2010, the share of Americans’ food budget spent on food away from home (FAFH) reached 50 percent (up from 41 percent in 1984), surpassing the share spent on food at home (FAH) for the first time. Likewise, Americans’ share of energy intake from FAFH rose from 17 percent in 1977-78 to 34 percent in 2011-12, with differences in growth across types of FAFH such as full- and quick-service restaurant foods, school meals, etc. Along with the demand for FAFH, availability of FAFH has also increased, with much of the growth in recent years attributable to quick-service restaurants. The growing presence of FAFH in Americans’ diets reflects changes in consumer demand and producer behavior and affects the health and nutrition of individuals over time. ERS published a multi-chapter report that takes a comprehensive look at the role of FAFH in American diets, exploring nutritional composition of FAFH and key Federal programs that may influence FAFH. The report also discusses how FAFH choices and availability relate to diet quality, income, age, and other socioeconomic factors.

families eating away from homeAmong the many factors that drive demand for convenience foods, having a higher income, being employed, participating in food assistance programs, age, and presence of children in the home are important, while proximity to eating out places is not important.

The report examines the demand for convenience foods at full-service restaurants as well as fast food restaurants, and also demand for supermarket food by whether the food is “ready-to-eat” or not. Participation in food assistance programs is associated with increased demand for both kinds of supermarket foods: ready-to-eat and non-ready-to-eat food. Compared to middle-income households, higher income households are more likely to go to full-service restaurants and less likely to go to fast food restaurants, but somewhat surprisingly, low-income households are more likely to go to fast food restaurants than are middle income households. Time constraints from employment shift demand from food at home to food away from home. Employment of all adults in a household lowers purchases of ready-to-eat food by 12 percent and increases purchases in full-service restaurants by 72 percent relative to households where not all adults are employed. The presence of children in a household increases demand for convenience foods. Households with children purchase 19 percent more fast food and 38 percent less full-service restaurant food than households without children.

The nutritional quality of foods purchased or otherwise acquired by the overall population scored 53 out of 100 points using USDA’s HEI-2010 measure.

ERS assessed the nutritional quality of households’ acquired foods using the Healthy Eating Index-2010 (HEI-2010), a measure based on how well the mix of foods acquired compares to recommendations from the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The report finds that nutritional quality varies across population subgroups defined by income and by participation in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp Program). SNAP-participating households had lower HEI-2010 scores than both low-income nonparticipating and higher income households. However, these findings do not prove a causal link between SNAP participation and low diet quality because we did not control for the many ways SNAP-participating households differ from non-participating households, such as age, household composition, and education. Across all income groups, acquisitions from food-away-from-home (FAFH) sources were of lower nutritional quality than those from food-at-home (FAH) sources, such as grocery stores, supermarkets, and supercenters. However, for higher income households, the difference in nutritional quality between FAFH and FAH was greater than it was for SNAP-participating households, possibly reflecting that higher income households acquired more FAFH from restaurants or fast-food; whereas SNAP-participating households acquired more of their FAFH from sources such as school meals or meals with friends and family.

SNAP policy issues involve perennial tradeoffs and challenges.

As one of the mainstays of the country’s safety net, USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) accounts for over half of USDA's annual budget. With origins in the Great Depression, SNAP participation and expenditures have grown and declined in response to economic conditions and policy changes. The challenges policymakers face today about how to best design the program are similar to ones faced in the past. ERS examines this history along with analysis of six policy issues that have resurfaced in recent SNAP policy debates. The report discusses the tradeoffs identified by economists on six issues: block grant proposals, store eligibility requirements, limits on foods that can be purchased by participants, adequacy of benefit amounts, program eligibility rules, and work requirements. By providing historical and analytical perspectives on major program design changes, this report informs current policy debates.

millennial grocery shopper taking a selfie with cellphoneMillennials are the largest and most diverse generation in the United States, and they spend more on food away from home than other generations.

Millennials, born between 1981 and the mid-2000s, will be an important driver in the food economy for years to come. Their grocery store habits may change as they age, but current differences from older generations could have implications for future food demand. Comparing across similar income groups, Millennials spend more of their budget on food away from home, they eat out more often, they spend less time cooking and eating, and the foods that they do eat at home are easier to prepare. Among all generations, Millennials devote the smallest share of food expenditures to grains, white meat, and red meat. Though Millennials spend less on food at home in total, they allocate more proportionately to prepared foods, pasta, and sugar/sweets than any other generation. When partitioning by income per capita, fruit expenditure shares for Millennials essentially matched those of Traditionalists, who allocate the largest share to fruits. Moreover, as Millennials become richer, they apportion more of their food at home budget to vegetables, suggesting that the millennial generation may have a stronger preference for fruits and vegetables compared to older generations.

Food labels can give consumers valuable information that they cannot verify for themselves, but labels can also be misleading.

Food suppliers may voluntarily offer only information that increases demand for their products. Also, consumers may not understand label claims, and instead of facilitating economic activity, labels may increase inefficiency in the marketplace. Food label claims have proliferated over the past three decades. Some of these have been federally mandated and some have been voluntary. Some may be certified or verified by the Government or by private-sector entities. A recent ERS report examines five case studies from the past 30 years that highlight roles the Federal Government has played in food labels and the informational strengths and weaknesses of various labels. These case studies include the implementation of Federal standards for the “Nutrition Facts” label (mandatory for many foods), the USDA Organic seal, the voluntary labeling of food as made without genetically engineered ingredients, the voluntary labeling of meat and poultry products as raised without antibiotics (RWA), and the labeling of the federally defined country of origin of the product (COOL), which is mandatory for some food products.

field of leafy greensMany growers who would be subject to the Food Safety Modernization Act’s “Produce Rule” already had some food safety practices in place.

Using a unique set of survey data, ERS research explored U.S. produce growers’ on-farm microbial food safety practices before implementation of FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act “Produce Rule.” The study found growers’ rates of adopting food safety practices before they were required to do so varied by farm size, with larger growers having adopted food safety practices at higher rates than smaller growers. Smaller farms also needed to make more changes than larger farms to meet PR standards. The research also found that some growers who would not be covered by the PR and would not be required to adopt new food safety practices had done so anyway. This represents a watershed moment in understanding practices of individual produce growers, as the most recent comparable data was collected in the 1990s, and was heavily cited in FDA’s Produce Safety Rule.