Food insecurity and food stamps: How is the US doing?

December 19, 2005

Imagine being one of the 38 million people in the United States whose family can't count on having enough food throughout the year. According to new federal data, the number of families considered "food insecure" is growing. The Economic Research Service (ERS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in October that household food insecurity increased in 2004. What's more, says Parke Wilde, PhD, assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, "this increase represents the largest one-year jump since data collection began in 1995." Wilde, a food economist, tracks household food insecurity, food stamps, and related measures of hunger.

The percentage of US households classified as insecure rose from 11.2 percent in 2003 to 11.9 percent in 2004. While this one-year increase might not seem like a lot, it represents the fifth straight year of worsening food insecurity. Barely 10 percent of US households were food insecure in 1999. Wilde illustrates graphically how household food insecurity declined between 1995 and 1999, but then increased steadily every year from 1999 to 2004. "The top line [of the graph] shows actual rates of household food insecurity, and the bottom line reproduces the trend line contained in a 2002 USDA report describing intended progress toward national goals."

"The country," Wilde says, "is moving further away from its goals. The official Healthy People 2010 objective is six percent food insecurity by the year 2010. The 'Rome Declaration,' adopted by the US and 185 other countries at the 1996 World Food Summit, pledges a commitment to work toward the goal of a 50 percent reduction in the number of undernourished people by no later than 2015."

Wilde points out that a family's food security status can fluctuate greatly from one year to the next. Commenting in a paper that he presented earlier this year, Wilde notes: "Households do not come in constant 'secure' and 'insecure' varieties. Instead, it appears that unobserved hardships strike from time to time, with large effects on both Food Stamp Program participation and food security. Unobserved hardships (occurrences that are not accounted for in the survey) such as a sudden medical emergency would affect food security in households by diverting income normally used for food to pay for medical expenses. People experiencing an unobserved hardship may be more likely to join the Food Stamp Program."

Wilde and his co-author Mark Nord of the ERS, USDA, writing in the Review of Agricultural Economics, quantified these year-to-year fluctuations as part of a study that sought to measure how the US Food Stamp Program influences food security. They used a panel data model that sought to identify confounding factors that may have produced skewed results in previous analyses. "The study provides, for the first time, a dynamic picture of the rates at which families fall into hunger or rise out of hunger from one year to the next, using nationally representative data." Previous efforts, according to Wilde, did not survey the same group of people over time. This new analysis of the data compares their food security status in 2001 and 2002.

Wilde advises that, "this topic is sufficiently important to warrant using the best possible research designs to ensure that the Food Stamp program is producing favorable results and meeting its stated goals."
A high resolution graphic is available at the following link:

Wilde, P., Nord, M. Review of Agricultural Economics. 27 (3): 1-8. "The Effect of Food Stamps on Food Security: A Panel Data Approach."

If you are interested in learning more about these topics, or speaking with a faculty member at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, or another Tufts health sciences researcher, please contact Siobhan Gallagher at 617-636-6586 or Peggy Hayes at 617-636-3707.

The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school's eight centers, which focus on questions relating to famine, hunger, poverty, and communications, are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy. For two decades, the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University has studied the relationship between good nutrition and good health in aging populations. Tufts research scientists work with federal agencies to establish the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the Dietary Reference Intakes, and other significant public policies.

Tufts University

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