Hunger vs. Food Insecurity

Food banks across the country use the terms “hunger” and “food insecurity” pretty much interchangeably when explaining their work, but they actually have different meanings.

Every year the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service issues the rates of food insecurity by state. Very low food security, as they define it, is “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” In other words, it describes a household situation, usually due to lack of money, whether that household is one person or ten.

Until 2006, the USDA used the term “food insecurity with hunger” for this very same measure. Why did they drop the word “hunger?” Isn’t “hunger” more direct, as opposed to “food insecurity,” which sounds like a bland euphemism? Are they trying to make us think there isn’t hunger in America?

Hunger is a physiological state. Hunger describes the physical pain and discomfort an individual experiences. Hunger is a spectrum of pain spanning from what one feels when on a diet to starvation.

As the USDA Economic Research Service says, “…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.” They, as their name implies, look at economic conditions, not physical ones. There really isn’t a method to measure the physiological sensation of hunger.

So what does this mean for New Mexico? The current report (using December 2011 data) was just released September 5, 2012. 16.5% of New Mexico households have “low or very low food security,” vs. the national rate of 14.7%, putting us in seventh place for food insecurity. ( You can take a closer look at the report here.

This explains why a senior doesn’t take her medication like she is supposed to. Why a child next to yours in school is often falling asleep in class, instead of paying attention. And why a man is “swallowing his pride” to stand in a soup kitchen line today. Because they are hungry.

Stephanie Miller is the Director of Development for Roadrunner Food Bank.



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