Hunger in the United States

While hunger is often portrayed in the media as a distant problem in third-world countries, the pangs of food insecurity are very much felt here in North America. Hunger haunts communities around the nation, and affected more than 38 million Americans in 2020 alone.

Here’s a look at the state of hunger in the US, the causes behind food security issues, and assorted methods used to fight the hunger crisis.

US Hunger

Food Insecurity

The SDA defines food-insecure households like this: “At times during the year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” Food insecurity in America is evaluated on two levels—low food security and very low food security.

In households with low food security, people were able to “avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake,” while in households with very low food security, these consequences were not avoidable. Members of the household experienced disruptions in eating patterns and reduced food intake. These people went hungry because of a lack of money or resources.

Hunger Statistics in the US

The issue of hunger in America has been an area of need for a long time, but the hunger crisis has recently been exacerbated by the pandemic. In 2020 alone, the USDA reported that…

  • 38.3 million people lived in food-insecure households.
  • 9.4 million adults lived in households with very low food security.
  • 6.1 million children lived in food-insecure households in which children, along with adults, were food insecure.

Feeding America notes that “every community in the country is home to families who face hunger,” but that certain groups are more likely to be affected. This includes rural communities; African American, Latino, and Native American communities; and those living at or near poverty levels. In fact, Prosperity Now reports that “40% of Americans are living just one paycheck away from poverty, making impossible decisions between paying their bills, feeding their families, or filling their prescriptions.”

Causes of Food Insecurity

The causes of food insecurity are complex and interconnected, but generally boil down to issues of access and distribution. Some of the factors that engender inaccess and poor distribution, thus sustaining food insecurity, are these:

  • Poverty, unemployment, or low income
  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Chronic health conditions or lack of access to healthcare
  • Systemic racism and racial discrimination

As Amy Glasmeier, economic geographer at Penn State University, told NPR, “A big part of food insecurity relates to the uncertainties of daily life. People go hungry because of unexpected events, such as paying for an emergency visit to the hospital, a car repair, or the loss of a job. So you can be just above the poverty line, and any one of those circumstances can push you into poverty.” A low income also makes it difficult for families and individuals to afford healthy food, leading to demand for low-cost (and low-nutrition) items that reinforce distribution issues.

Additionally, systemic injustice perpetuates food insecurity in the US. Healthy People reports that in 2016, “Black non-Hispanic households were nearly two times more likely to be food insecure than the national average.” Marginalized communities often face geographic issues like food deserts, where affordable and nutritious food is simply not available. Wage gaps, healthcare access, and other causes compound these issues and make hunger a persistent problem.

Hunger Solutions

Food insecurity is a difficult issue to address because of its various causes and the differences in how people experience and are affected by it. However, there are programs, organizations, and individuals doing what they can to alleviate hunger in the US. Here’s a look at some of the solutions that aim to make healthy food affordable for all.

A large-scale program dedicated to improving food access is the federal food assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP provides monthly benefits that support the food budgets of participants, and operates through state-run programs like CalFresh. In 2019 alone, SNAP helped 38 million Americans put food on the table.

While food assistance programs are an essential means of support, they unfortunately cannot reach everyone in need. Feeding America reports that 1 in 3 people who are food insecure may not qualify for federal food assistance. Here, food banks and other nonprofit organizations across the US step in to fill the gap.

Food banks like the SLO Food Bank in San Luis Obispo help millions of Americans by providing food and connecting families and individuals with essential resources. There are also lots of organizations that combat food distribution issues by engaging in food rescue and helping reduce food waste. Currently, more than 58 million pounds of produce are left to rot in fields every year. The SLO Food Bank’s GleanSLO program rescues food that would otherwise go to waste from local farms, orchards, backyards, and farmers markets and distributes it to those in need.

We at the SLO Food Bank believe that everyone has the right to nutritious food. We work with a network of community partners in San Luis Obispo to alleviate hunger and to build a stronger community. If you’re in the area, check out our Food Locator to find food sources near you, or support our cause through volunteer opportunities. With reliable access to wholesome food, we are all healthier, happier, and more productive members of our communities.

If you are able to give, donate today to help us bring health and happiness to San Luis Obispo County!