Hunger Facts

Food Insecurity & the Cycle of Hunger

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.[2] It is important to know that though hunger and food insecurity are closely related, they are distinct concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level. 

Food insecurity and health are intricately linked. People living in food-insecure homes experience challenges in accessing nutritious foods and face barriers to consistently adopting healthy eating patterns. A poor quality diet that lacks nutritious food has detrimental effects on a person's physical and mental health. Poor nutrition can increase the risk of developing health problems, including diabetes and hypertension. Food insecurity also exacerbates the complex challenges of managing a chronic disease. (Feeding America)

Extensive research reveals food insecurity is a complex problem. Many people do not have the resources to meet their basic needs, challenges that increase a family's risk of food insecurity. Though food insecurity is closely related to poverty, not all people living below the poverty line experience food insecurity and people living above the poverty line can experience food insecurity. (Feeding America)

Ranges of Food Insecurity

While households are often described as either food secure or food insecure, four levels of food security describe the range of households' experiences in accessing enough food. Households with high food security and marginal food security make up the food secure category, and households with low food security and very low food security make up the food insecure category.

food insecurity pyramid infographic

Hunger and Education

The truth is, hunger hurts. 46% of children from low-income families say hunger negatively impacts their academic performance. They're not wrong. Studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Pediatrics, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry show that hunger greatly impacts a child's performance and behavior in school. "Hungry children have lower math scores. They are also are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss it entirely" due to illness.


Food insecurity is harmful to children's health. Many studies have found that food insecurity harms children's health in a variety of ways. Research conducted by Children's HealthWatch and others has found that food-insecure young children are nearly twice as likely to be in fair or poor health when compared to food-secure young children, and significantly more likely to be hospitalized. Food-insecure children are also more likely to suffer from common illnesses such as stomachaches, headaches, and colds when they reach preschool age. Research on the relationship between food insecurity in childhood and obesity is inconclusive. One longitudinal study of young children, however, suggests that persistent household food insecurity may be a contributing factor in childhood obesity.

 Food insecurity is harmful to children's development. Children's HealthWatch findings show that food insecure infants and toddlers are two thirds more likely than food-secure young children to be at risk for developmental delays. Our research has also tied food insecurity to iron-deficiency anemia in young children, a condition which negatively influences development of basic motor and social skills. The stress that family hardships, like food-insecurity, place on a young child physically alter the development of crucial brain structures controlling memory and psychosocial functioning. Early childhood is the narrow window during which one builds the basic capacity to learn and interact productively with others; disrupting this brief period diminishes children's ability to acquire complex school skills as they grow, and, later, job skills.

The developmental impact of food insecurity in early childhood is sustained through a child's critical first years in school. A study of school-aged children who suffered from iron-deficiency anemia as infants-a health outcome associated with food insecurity-found impaired memory and social functioning more than 10 years after the children had completed iron treatment. Researchers examining the role of food insecurity in cognitive outcomes found that food-insecure 6-11 year-olds scored lower than their food-secure peers on a measure of child intelligence and were more likely to have seen a child psychologist. The same study also found that these children had a harder time getting along with others, were more likely to have repeated a grade, and had lower arithmetic and general achievement test scores than food-secure children in the same age group. A study using data from the 1999 National Survey of American Families found that food insecurity predicts poor school engagement partly because food-insecure children tend to be in poor emotional and physical health. In a longitudinal study, other researchers found that food insecurity in kindergarten was associated with poor reading performance and impaired social skills in later grades.

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