Hidden Food Stress in the United States

A family sits around a table enjoying dinner. There is enough food tonight so that everyone in the household will go to bed well-fed, but the mother lies awake wondering how she will afford next week’s groceries. This experience of stress is hidden to those around her. She knows that her children need nutritious foods to grow and resolves to either find the resources necessary to afford food or cut back, and use some of the “food stretching” strategies she learned from her mother, so her children are spared from the pains of hunger. The stress of uncertain food access for this mother and so many other people across the country is overwhelming, yet largely overlooked.

The United States Department of Agriculture reported that 16.6 percent of households with children and 16.9 percent of households with children under age six experienced food insecurity in 2015. This estimate, however, does not include families like the one described in this vignette, who, though categorized as food secure, have reasons to be worried about their access to food, a condition referred to as being “marginally food secure“ These families are underreported in national survey datasets as they are categorized as food secure. We know, though, from Children’s HealthWatch research that marginal food security is linked with negative health and development outcomes for children and bad health status and depressive symptoms among mothers. And if you study the survey results carefully, and know where to look, and how to interpret the data, you can determine that 4.42 million households with children were marginally food secure in 2015, and more than 18 million people lived in those households, including 8.33 million children.

In our first report card in a series on food security in the United States, we examine trends in food security status over time paying special attention to marginal food security, which we refer to as hidden food stress. By counting families experiencing hidden food stress, we aim to highlight the lived experiences of families facing economic hardships and the harsh realities of stress many families face.

Hidden food stress, however, is ameliorable; it can be fixed through positive policy changes including:

  1. Reporting more clearly on marginal food security in national datasets in order to better understand the magnitude of the issue and identify solutions for reducing food stressors.
  2. Ensuring workers earn living wages and people have access to food and other assistance programs that provide the consistent resources necessary for family necessities including food, housing, utilities, and child care.
  3. Helping families afford healthful foods and making fresh, affordable foods widely available.
  4. Increasing the SNAP benefit to reflect the real cost of a healthy diet by switching from the Thrifty Food Plan to the Low Cost Food Plan as the basis for benefit calculations.

Reducing hidden food stress and ensuring families are hunger-free is achievable. This on-going series of report cards will examine the state of food security among households with young children and provide research findings that will inform policy solutions. Our nation’s children deserve to grow up in families where no one worries about whether or not food will run out. A healthy future for children and their families is possible through comprehensive policy prescriptions that eliminate food insecurity, even at the mildest levels.