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Food insecurity: How do you measure the problem?

Photograph by Jason Little

With an issue as far reaching as food insecurity, how does one possibly get at its scope?

“I think that globally when people poll students, we’re not all speaking the same language, and I think that’s been one of the challenges,” says Jill Horst, executive director of campus dining at the University of California Santa Barbara, noting that a number of different questions may be asked to gain a sense of the issue, each of which measures something different. Some examples she gave: Do you feel you’re food insecure? Do you feel you can get food? Do you feel that you’re eating what you want to be eating every day?

The USDA Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) examines the nation’s food security on an annual basis. Every December, close to 40,000 households are asked a series of questions related to food security as an add-on to the monthly Current Population Survey undertaken by the U.S. Census Bureau (the population sample is representative at both state and national levels, per the USDA). Analyzing that data supplied by the Census Bureau, USDA ERS estimated that 11.8% of American households experienced food insecurity in 2017.

“Still Hungry and Homeless in College,” a report issued by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab in April 2018 and widely discussed in the media at that time, was based on research that used a USDA-developed 10-item survey to measure food security among adults. (The researchers also asked questions about access to housing.) The study determined that 36% of college students had been food insecure in the month (30 days) prior to taking the survey. 

The 43,000 responses it received from 66 higher-education institutions were voluntary and nonrandom, per the report, and schools promoted 10 $100 prizes in an effort to garner responses. “Given these constraints, the results may not be generalizable on either institutional or national levels,” the report said, urging the government and other organizations to allot funding for a more comprehensive study.

Not quite a snap

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has noted a gap in the number of college students who may be eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and those who actually utilize them. Looking at data from the U.S. Department of Education, the GAO concluded in a December 2018 report that close to 2 million “at-risk” students who could be eligible to receive SNAP benefits “did not report receiving benefits in 2016.” Close to a third of state SNAP agencies told the GAO last spring that they were working to boost college students’ awareness of the program and to assist them with accessing benefits. A low income is “the most common risk factor for food insecurity among college students,” notes the GAO report.

Food security, stratified

The USDA breaks down food security into these four buckets: 

High food security: “No reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.”

Marginal food security:One or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.”

Low food security: Reports of reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.”

Very low food security:Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

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