Shift to 'Food Insecurity' Creates Startling New Picture of Hunger in America

Millions of working Americans are "food insecure."

A woman in Osage, Iowa, cans homegrown vegetables to supplement what her family, classified as "food insecure," receives from the local food bank.

Her face was small and pitiful: a brown-eyed, blond-curled toddler, eyes darting, lying on a doctor's table. First we saw her belly, rounder than her skinny legs would suggest, prodded by a physician. And then the camera pulled back, showing the filthy, caked bottoms of her feet.

The year was 1968, and the child was a subject of "Hunger in America," a CBS Reports documentary that aired amid President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. Other scenes showed sharecropper families with rat-infested bedding, and Mexican-Americans too hungry to move.

That was the face of American hunger in 1968. The girl was one of ten million Americans considered hungry, a number equivalent to 5 percent of the population. Most of the hungry lacked jobs, and the unemployment rate of 4 percent nearly tracked the rate of hunger. But however dire that hunger was, it was marginal, with 1 in 20 Americans going without food.

Today, nearly 50 years later, hunger in America looks very different. (Related Graphic: $10 Meals—Fresh Food vs. Fast Food.)

It's a Different Hunger

The biggest difference between hunger in 1968 and today may well be sheer numbers: In 2012, 49 million Americans struggled with hunger, according to the USDA. That's 16 percent of the population, nearly double the then unemployment rate.

For the sake of comparison, that translates to 1 in 6 Americans. Much of that, say experts, can be attributed to a change in how we measure hunger.

In 2006 the USDA traded the term "hunger" for "food insecurity," shifting the focus from whether people were literally starving to whether staying fed was a problem. Researchers had traditionally measured hunger through physical symptoms, like stunted growth and being underweight. Now they began asking Americans whether they were ever actually hungry: Had they missed meals, worried about running out of food, or gone to bed hungry?

Measuring food insecurity rather than hunger has led to a startling new picture of America, says Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College whose recently re-released Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat explores the link between hunger and agricultural policy.

When it comes to America's hungry, says Poppendieck, "they're not hungry all the time; they just can't count on not being hungry."

The Hungry Have Stuff—and Jobs

In New York City's Bronx borough, more than one-third of the residents and nearly half the children are food insecure. Even so, the people who show up at food assistance programs there may surprise you, says Christopher Bean, executive director of Part of the Solution, a nonprofit that runs a soup kitchen and food pantry in the borough.

"The most common misperception comes back to the idea that the individuals ... who are food insecure are ... street homeless," says Bean. Part of the Solution sees those people, he says, but its clientele "is families, it is mothers with baby strollers, it's people with cell phones."

Today the hungry are almost always employed, a sea change since the 1960s. In 2012, 60 percent of all food-insecure Americans lived in households with a full-time worker; another 15 percent lived in households with a part-time worker.

It is now so common for people to be both employed and hungry, says Bean, that in 2011 Part of the Solution added Saturday hours to its pantry in hopes of serving more working families.

This year the nonprofit decided to expand into evenings and possibly Sundays for the same reason. "We've seen the trend of more and more working people struggling with hunger," says Bean. "We're changing our program delivery model to accommodate them."

Hunger Becoming a Problem of Wages

At its base, modern hunger is a problem of income, says Christian Gregory, an economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service.

In June, Gregory and two colleagues published a report about food insecurity in postrecession America, listing the three biggest predictors. The first was unemployment and a sheer lack of income: If you don't have a job, you're more likely to lack food.

But the next two predictors of food insecurity were variations on the theme of low wages. One was inflation, which in this context means the failure of wages to keep up with the cost of living. The other was rising food prices. Indeed, even though more people had jobs, food prices rose enough that they couldn't necessarily buy more food with their wages.

And that too is a significant difference from 1968. Today the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. In nominal terms, that's a huge raise over the $1.60 on offer in 1968. But adjust for inflation—for rising health and housing costs, for the skyrocketing cost of education—and 1968 looks much better. That minimum wage, today, would equal $10.94.

When it comes to hunger, said Gregory, "it really matters how much income is available to people."