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Measurement



This page provides the following information:

This page provides an overview of how household food security and food insecurity are measured. For detailed technical information on measurement methods, questionnaires, and calculating food security scales, see Food Security in the U.S.: Survey Tools.

What Is Food Security?

Food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum:

  • The ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.
  • Assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies).

...and Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.

(Definitions are from the Life Sciences Research Office, S.A. Andersen, ed., "Core Indicators of Nutritional State for Difficult to Sample Populations," The Journal of Nutrition 120:1557S-1600S, 1990.)

Does USDA Measure Hunger?

USDA does not have a measure of hunger or the number of hungry people. Prior to 2006, USDA described households with very low food security as "food insecure with hunger" and characterized them as households in which one or more people were hungry at times during the year because they could not afford enough food. "Hunger" in that description referred to "the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food."

In 2006, USDA introduced the new description "very low food security" to replace "food insecurity with hunger," recognizing more explicitly that, although hunger is related to food insecurity, it is a different phenomenon. Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food, while hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.

Information about the incidence of hunger is of considerable interest and potential value for policy and program design. But providing precise and useful information about hunger is hampered by lack of a consistent meaning of the word. "Hunger" is understood variously by different people to refer to conditions across a broad range of severity, from rather mild food insecurity to prolonged clinical undernutrition.

USDA sought guidance from the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National Academies on the use of the word "hunger" in connection with food insecurity. The independent panel of experts convened by CNSTAT concluded that in official statistics, resource-constrained hunger (i.e., physiological hunger resulting from food insecurity) "...should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation."

Validated methods have not yet been developed to measure resource-constrained hunger in this sense, in the context of U.S. conditions. Such measurement would require collection of more detailed and extensive information on physiological experiences of individual household members than could be accomplished effectively in the context of USDA's annual household food security survey.

USDA's measurement of food insecurity, then, provides some information about the economic and social contexts that may lead to hunger but does not assess the extent to which hunger actually ensues.

How Are Food Security and Insecurity Measured?

The food security status of each household lies somewhere along a continuum extending from high food security to very low food security. This continuum is divided into four ranges, characterized as follows:

  1. High food securityHouseholds 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.

USDA introduced the above labels for ranges of food security in 2006. See Food Security in the U.S.: Definitions of Food Security for further information.

For most reporting purposes, USDA describes households with high or marginal food security as food secure and those with low or very low food security as food insecure.

Placement on this continuum is determined by the household's responses to a series of questions about behaviors and experiences associated with difficulty in meeting food needs. The questions cover a wide range of severity of food insecurity.

Least severe:
Was this statement often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months? "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more."

Somewhat more severe:
Was this statement often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months? "We couldn't afford to eat balanced meals."

Midrange severity:
In the last 12 months, did you ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn't enough money for food?

Most severe:
In the last 12 months, did you ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?

In the last 12 months, did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?

Every question specifies the period (last 12 months) and specifies lack of resources as the reason for the behavior or experience ("we couldn't afford more food," "there was not enough money for food.")

Food Insecure. Households that report three or more conditions that indicate food insecurity are classified as "food insecure." That is, they were at times unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food. The three least severe conditions that would result in a household being classified as food insecure are:

  • They worried whether their food would run out before they got money to buy more.
  • The food they bought didn't last, and they didn't have money to get more.
  • They couldn't afford to eat balanced meals.

Households are also classified as food insecure if they report any combination of three or more conditions, including any more severe conditions.

Very Low Food Security. Households having "very low food security" were food insecure to the extent that eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and their food intake reduced, at least some time during the year, because they could not afford enough food. To be classified as having "very low food security," households with no children present must report at least the three conditions listed above and also that:

  • Adults ate less than they felt they should.
  • Adults cut the size of meals or skipped meals and did so in 3 or more months.

Many report additional, more severe experiences and behaviors as well. If there are children in the household, their experiences and behaviors are also assessed, and an additional two affirmative responses are required for a classification of very low food security.


Survey Questions Used by USDA to Assess Household Food Security

1. "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

2. "The food that we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to get more." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

3. "We couldn't afford to eat balanced meals." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

4. In the last 12 months, did you or other adults in the household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)

5. (If yes to question 4) How often did this happen--almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?

6. In the last 12 months, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)

7. In the last 12 months, were you ever hungry, but didn't eat, because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)

8. In the last 12 months, did you lose weight because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)

9. In the last 12 months did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)

10. (If yes to question 9) How often did this happen--almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?

(Questions 11-18 were asked only if the household included children age 0-17)

11. "We relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed our children because we were running out of money to buy food." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

12. "We couldn't feed our children a balanced meal, because we couldn't afford that." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

13. "The children were not eating enough because we just couldn't afford enough food." Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?

14. In the last 12 months, did you ever cut the size of any of the children's meals because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)

15. In the last 12 months, were the children ever hungry but you just couldn't afford more food? (Yes/No)

16. In the last 12 months, did any of the children ever skip a meal because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)

17. (If yes to question 16) How often did this happen--almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?

18. In the last 12 months did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food? (Yes/No)


How Many Households Are Interviewed in the National Food Security Surveys?

USDA's food security statistics are based on a national food security survey conducted as an annual supplement to the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS is a nationally representative survey conducted by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CPS provides data for the Nation's monthly unemployment statistics and annual income and poverty statistics.

In December of each year, after completing the labor force interview, about 45,000 households respond to the food security questions and to questions about food spending and about the use of Federal and community food assistance programs. The households interviewed in the CPS are selected to be representative of all civilian households at State and national levels.

Last updated: Monday, August 19, 2013

For more information contact: Alisha Coleman-Jensen and Mark Nord

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