History & Background

This page provides the following information:

Early History

The food security statistics reported by USDA, ERS are based on a survey measure developed by the U.S. Food Security Measurement Project, an ongoing collaboration among Federal agencies, academic researchers, and private commercial and nonprofit organizations. The measure was developed in response to the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 (NNMRR).

The 10-Year Comprehensive Plan developed under that Act specified the following task: "Recommend a standardized mechanism and instrument(s) for defining and obtaining data on the prevalence of 'food insecurity' or 'food insufficiency' in the United States and methodologies that can be used across the NNMRR Program and at State and local levels."

Beginning in 1992, USDA staff reviewed the existing research literature on the conceptual basis for measuring food insecurity and on the practical problems of developing a survey instrument for use in sample surveys at national, State, and local levels.

In January 1994, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) joined with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Center for Health Statistics to sponsor a National Conference on Food Security Measurement and Research. The conference brought together leading academic experts, private researchers, and key staff of the concerned Federal agencies. The conference identified the appropriate conceptual basis for a national measure of food insecurity. The conference also reached a working agreement concerning the best operational form for implementing such a measure in national surveys.

CPS Food Security Supplement

The U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census carried out a cognitive assessment and field test of the food security questionnaire. The questionnaire was finalized and administered as a supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) of April 1995.

The Food Security Supplement was repeated in September 1996, April 1997, August 1998, April 1999, September 2000, April and December 2001, and annually in December since 2001. Minor modifications to the questionnaire format and screening procedures were made over the first several years, and a more substantial revision in screening and format, designed to reduce respondent burden and improve data quality, was introduced with the August 1998 survey. However, the content of the 18 questions upon which the U.S. Food Security Scale is based remained constant in all years.

Development of the Household Food Security Scale

Initial analysis of the 1995 data in Household Food Security in the United States in 1995: Technical Report of the Food Security Measurement Project was conducted by Abt Associates Inc. through a cooperative venture with FNS, an interagency working group on food security measurement, and other key researchers involved in developing the questionnaire. The Abt team used nonlinear factor analysis and other state-of-the-art statistical methods to produce a scale that measures the severity of deprivation in basic food needs as experienced by U.S. households. Extensive testing established the validity and reliability of the scale and its applicability across various household types in the broad national sample.

Following collection of the September 1996 and April 1997 CPS food security data, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. (MPR), under a contract awarded by FNS, independently reproduced the results from the 1995 CPS food security data, estimated prevalence rates of food insecurity for 1996 and 1997, and assessed the stability and robustness of the measurement model when applied to the separate datasets. The MPR findings in Household Food Security in the United States, 1995–1997: Technical Issues and Statistical Report established the stability of the food security measure over the 1995–97 period. That is, the relative severities of the items were found to be nearly invariant across years and across major population groups and household types.

USDA, ERS Sponsors the Food Security Survey

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (ERS) assumed sponsorship of the Census Bureau's annual food security survey and responsibility for analyzing and reporting the data and for coordinating ongoing USDA research on food security and food security measurement.

USDA, ERS collaborated with MPR and FNS to develop and finalize standardized procedures for calculating the household food security scale and analyzed the data from 1998 and later years using these procedures. USDA, ERS and IQ Solutions analyzed data from the 1998 and 1999 surveys, found that the scale continued to be stable, and examined additional technical measurement and estimation issues; see link below:

Household Food Security in the United States, 1998 and 1999: Technical Report

Annual Reports on Household Food Security in the United States

USDA, ERS began publishing annual reports in the Household Food Security in the United States series beginning with the 1999 CPS Food Security Supplement data. New annual reports are released each September. Links to all the annual reports are below:

Committee on National Statistics Reviews the Food Security Measure

In 2003–06 an expert panel convened by the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National Academies conducted a thorough review of the food security measurement methods. USDA requested the review to ensure that the measurement methods USDA uses to assess households' access—and lack of access—to adequate food and the language used to describe those conditions are scientifically 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. Two of the central issues the CNSTAT panel addressed were:

  • Are the concept and definition of hunger appropriate for the policy context in which food security statistics are used?
  • Is the relationship between hunger and food insecurity appropriately represented in the language used to report food security statistics?

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, and suggested several ways in which the methodology might be refined (contingent on confirmatory research).

The CNSTAT panel recommended that USDA make a clear and explicit distinction between food insecurity and hunger and consider alternative labels to convey the severity of food insecurity without using the word "hunger." USDA concurred with this recommendation and, accordingly, introduced the labels "low food security" and "very low food security" to replace "food insecurity without hunger" and "food insecurity with hunger," respectively. More information about the panel's recommendations can be found on the CNSTAT Assessment page.

USDA collaborated with partners in the food security measurement community to explore how best to implement other recommendations of the CNSTAT panel. In December 2012, USDA, ERS published a technical bulletin describing findings from assessments of five potential technical enhancements to the statistical methods used by USDA to measure food security; see:

Assessing Potential Technical Enhancements to the U.S. Household Food Security Measures

USDA, ERS continues to conduct research on refining food security measurement. See the technical bulletin:

Examining an "Experimental" Food Security Status Classification Method for Households with Children

Commemorating 20 Years of U.S. Food Security Measurement

The September 2015 release of annual food security statistics marked 20 years of measuring household food security in the United States. USDA, ERS sponsored a one-day conference in October 2015 to commemorate this milestone (see the conference agenda) with former USDA, ERS and FNS staff who were instrumental in developing the measure and research program. The opening session of the conference and a panel discussion on the development of the measure were recorded and are available on the conference web page (see "Reflecting on 20 Years of Measuring Household Food Security in the United States"). USDA, ERS also published a feature article in Amber Waves that includes a timeline for food security measurement (see "Commemorating 20 Years of U.S. Food Security Measurement," October 2015). 

Marking 25 Years of Food Security Measurement

To mark this milestone, USDA, ERS funded a suite of competitive grants through a collaborative research program titled “25 Years of Food Security Measurement: Answered Questions and Further Research.” The purpose of the program, a collaboration with Tufts University and the University of Missouri, was to foster research related to the past 25 years of U.S. household food security research and to explore feasible evidence-based improvements looking forward. Research papers resulting from funded projects were presented at a national conference on April 4, 2022 (with a recording available) and compiled in a journal supplement published in October 2023.

Other Surveys Collect Food Security Data 

The Federal food security measurement project has developed standardized questionnaires and methods for editing and scoring to produce household summary measures of food security status. These modules are now in use in several national surveys including: