Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday: How we measure Food Insecurity and Hunger

The Economic Research Service of the USDA plays a leading role in Federal research on food security—access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life—in U.S. households and communities.  It has set up the criterion for federal study of food needs across the United States of America.  In 2006, the ERS worked with the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies to study how we measure food insecurity and hunger.  This panel suggested some changes in the language used to describe food insecurity.

First of all, they decided the word "hunger" had too many connotations to be used in a scientific survey.  Hunger had previously been defined as "the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food."  The phrase “very low food security” replaced “food insecurity with hunger,” because studies by the ERS focus on households and socio-economics, rather than an individual's phisiological condition.  So, while "hunger" is a word that is frequently used to describe neediness when it comes to food, "food insecurity" is the term more often used in US scientific studies.

As a result of this effort, the ERS created four specific definitions to divide the range of food security and insecurity:

  1. High food security—Households had no problems, or anxiety about, consistently accessing adequate food.
  2. Marginal food security—Households had problems at times, or anxiety about, accessing adequate food, but the quality, variety, and quantity of their food intake were not substantially reduced.
  3. Low food security—Households reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns were not substantially disrupted.
  4. Very low food security—At times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
In general, if you fall within the top two categories, you would be described as food secure, and in the bottom two, as food insecure.  Households reporting three or more conditions indicating food insecurity are classified as “food insecure.”  The survey begins with a general description of the household's relationship to food needs: "Which of these statements best describes the food eaten in your household in the last 12 months: —enough of the kinds of food (I/we) want to eat; (IF YES ABOVE ASK) —enough, but not always the kinds of food (I/we) want; —sometimes not enough to eat; or, —often not enough to eat?"  Later, another question asks if the household considers its meals to be appropriate “(I/we) couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for (you/your household) in the last 12 months?"  Interestingly, none of the questions address the respondents' knowledge of an appropriate diet, only their personal understanding of their household's relationship to food.

Several questions, however, posed what I found to be a better, more quantifiable measure based on economics rather than an assessment of comfort level:
  • In the last 12 months, did you lose weight because there wasn't enough money for food?
  • In the last 12 months, did (you/you or other adults in your household) ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?  (IF YES ABOVE ASK) How often did this happen—almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?
  •  In the last 12 months, since (current month) of last year, did you ever cut the size of (your child's/any of the children's) meals because there wasn't enough money for food?
  •  In the last 12 months, did (CHILD’S NAME/any of the children) ever skip meals because there wasn't enough money for food? (IF YES ABOVE ASK) How often did this happen—almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months? 
  • In the last 12 months, did (your child/any of the children) ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?
This measure of food insecurity drives most of our federally-funded food programs. While food insecurity as measured by the ERS is a real and definite problem, I believe the measure needs to take into account a household's ability to choose foods appropriately, and their level of understanding about diet, health, and food accessibility.  For instance, as measured by this survey, someone who happily eats only junk foods might describe themselves as food secure, despite living in a food desert where they have no access to foods with appropriate nutrition.  Our understanding of hunger should not be limited to people's level of comfort, but also their level of access to foods of adequate nutrition, and their ability to understand how their food choices affect their families.


Nonpartisan said...

Those are hard questions to read.

Michele, I've been thinking quite a lot about Aldis, because it is such an interesting store to shop in. The store is small, sells no beer, wine or tobacco products, keeping away a whole segment of "shoppers."

All the food basics are there from rice, beans and tortillas, with very affordable meats, so traditional cooks can feel comfortable and welcome. The prices and packaging of the fruits and vegetable are very affordable. There's a wide range of dairy. But, unlike say Whole Foods, not whole aisles of chips and soda to distract from basic groceries.

The more I look, the more an Aldi seems like an answer to food deserts. Small, food basics, something for everyone, but not filled with junk food, and I would think fairly easy to locate. Seriously, makes me think about buying stock.


Michele Hays said...

I agree with you, Candace - and I'm not the only one: Aldi is specifically mentioned in this Chicago Magazine article:

I don't think the solution is limited to stores like Aldi, though - I think there are all kinds of ways to help Americans get enough good food to eat. I think policymakers should be mindful about programs to address these issues, and offer incentives for stores to participate in anti-hunger, pro-nutrition efforts.

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