Hunger in the United States is an issue that affects millions of Americans, including some who are middle class, or who are in households where all adults are in work. Research from the USDA found that 14.9% of American households were food insecure during at least some of 2011, with 5.7% suffering from very low food security. Journalists and charity workers have reported further increased demand for emergency food aid during 2012 and 2013.
The United States produces far more food than it needs for domestic consumption - hunger within the U.S. is caused by some Americans having insufficient money to buy food for themselves or their families. Hunger is addressed by a mix of public and private food aid provision. Both types of aid have been expanding in the 21st century, with hunger relief efforts by the government growing faster than aid provided by civil society.
Historically, the U.S. has been a world leader in reducing hunger. While precise comparative figures are not available, studies suggest that in the 18th century there was far less hunger in the United States than in the rest of the world. In the 19th and early 20th century western Europe began to catch up. After the outbreak of World War I however, the U.S. was able to send tens of millions of tons of food to relieve severe hunger in Europe. This act was unprecedented in the world's history, and was the first of many substantial actions by the United States to relieve international hunger and poverty.
In the later half of the twentieth century, other advanced economies in Europe and Asia began to overtake the U.S. in terms of reducing hunger among their own populations. In 2011, a report presented in the New York Times found that among 20 economies recognized as advanced by the International Monetary Fund and for which comparative rankings for food security were available, the U.S. was joint worst. Nonetheless, in March 2013, the Global Food Security Index commissioned by DuPont, ranked the U.S. number one for food affordability and overall food security.
Hunger in the United States is caused by a complex combination of factors. There is not a single cause attributed to hunger and there is much debate over who or what is responsible for the prevalence of hunger in the United States. However, researchers most commonly focus on the link between hunger and poverty. The federal poverty level is defined as "the minimum amount of income that a household needs to be able to afford housing, food, and other basic necessities." As of the year 2014, the federal poverty level for a family of four was $23,850.
Based on her research on poverty, Pennsylvania State University economic geographer Amy Glasmeier claims that when individuals live at, slightly above, or below the poverty line, unexpected expenses contribute to individuals reducing their food intake. Medical emergencies have a significant impact on poor families due to the high cost of medical care and hospital visits. Also, urgent car repairs reduce a family's ability to provide food, since the issue must be addressed in order to allow individuals to travel to and from work. Although income cannot be labeled as the sole cause of hunger, it plays a key role in determining if people possess the means to provide basic needs to themselves and their family.
The loss of a job reflects a core issue that contributes to hunger - employment insecurity. People who live in areas with higher unemployment rates and who have a minimal or very low amount of liquid assets are shown to be more likely to experience hunger or food insecurity. The complex interactions between a person's job status, income and benefits, and the number of dependents they must provide for, influence the impact of hunger on a family. For example, food insecurity often increases with the number of additional children in the household due to the negative impact on wage labor hours and an increase in the household's overall food needs.
Despite research on the correlation between poverty and hunger, comparison of data from the December Supplement of the 2009 Current Population Survey illustrated that poverty is not a direct causation of hunger. Of all household incomes near the federal poverty line, 65% were identified as food secure while 20% of households above the poverty line with an income-to-poverty ratio of approximately two were labeled as food insecure. The income-to-poverty ratio is a common measure used when analyzing poverty. In this particular case, it means that these households' total family income was approximately twice that of the federal poverty line for their specific family size. As this data illustrates, the factors which contribute to hunger are interrelated and complex.
An additional contributor to hunger and food insecurity in the United States is neighborhood deprivation. According to the Health & Place Journal, neighborhood deprivation is the tendency for low-income, minority neighborhoods to have greater exposure to unhealthy tobacco and alcohol advertisements, a fewer number of pharmacies with fewer medications, and a scarcity of grocery stores offering healthy food options in comparison to small convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. These neighborhoods are often referred to as "food deserts," as the lack of supermarkets prevents individuals from being able to access affordable and healthy food options. There are several theories that attempt to explain why food deserts form. One theory proposes that the expansion of large chain supermarkets results in the closure of smaller-sized, independent neighborhood grocery stores. Market competition thereby produces a void of healthy food retailers in low-income neighborhoods. Another theory suggests that in the period between 1970 and 1988, there was increasing economic segregation, with a large proportion of wealthy households moving from inner cities to more suburban areas. As a result, the median income in the inner cities rapidly decreased, causing a substantial proportion of supermarkets in these areas to close. Furthermore, business owners and managers are often discouraged from establishing grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods due to reduced demand for low-skilled workers, low-wage competition from international markets, zoning laws, and inaccurate perceptions about these areas.
A final cause of hunger is related to agricultural policy. Due to the heavy subsidization of crops such as corn and soybeans, healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are produced in lesser abundance and generally cost more than highly processed, packaged goods. Because unhealthful food items are readily available at much lower prices than fruits and vegetables, low-income populations often heavily rely on these foods for sustenance. As a result, the poorest people in the United States are often simultaneously undernourished and overweight or obese. This is because highly processed, packaged goods generally contain high amounts of calories in the form of fat and added sugars yet provide very limited amounts of essential micronutrients. These foods are thus said to provide "empty calories."
In 2011 16.7 million children lived in food-insecure households, about 35% more than 2007 levels, though only 1.1% of U.S. children, or 845,000, saw reduced food intake or disrupted eating patterns at some point during the year, and most cases were not chronic.
Almost 16 million children lived in food-insecure households in 2012. Schools throughout the country had 21 million children participate in a free or reduced lunch program and 11 million children participate in a free or reduced breakfast program. The extent of American youth facing hunger is clearly shown through the fact that 47% of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants are under the age of 18. The states with the highest rate of food insecure children were North Dakota, Minnesota, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts as of 2012.
Children who experience hunger have an increase in both physical and psychological health problems. Although there is not a direct correlation between chronic illnesses and hunger among children, the overall health and development of children decreases with exposure to hunger and food insecurity. Children are more likely to get ill and require a longer recovery period when they don't consume the necessary amount of nutrients. Additionally, children who consume a high amount of highly processed, packaged goods are more-likely to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease due to these food items containing a high amount of calories in the form of added sugars and fats. In regards to academics, children who experience hunger perform worse in school on both mathematic and reading assessments. Children who consistently start the day with a nutritious breakfast have an average increase of 17.5% on their standardized math scores than children who regularly miss breakfast.
Behavioral issues arise in both the school environment and in the children's ability to interact with peers of the same age. This is identified by both parental and teacher observations and assessments. Hunger takes a psychological toll on youth and negatively affects their mental health. Their lack of food contributes to the development of emotional problems and causes children to have visited with a psychiatrist more often than their sufficiently fed peers. Research shows that hunger plays a role in late youth and young adult depression and suicidal ideation. It was identified as a factor in 5.6% of depression and suicidal ideation cases in a Canadian longitudinal study.
Like children, the elderly population of the United States are vulnerable to the negative consequences of hunger. Senior citizens are considered to be of 65 years of age or older. In 2011, there was an increase of 0.9% in the number of seniors facing the threat of hunger from 2009. This resulted in a population of 8.8 million seniors who are facing this threat; however, a total of 1.9 million seniors were dealing with hunger at this time.
The organization Meals On Wheels reports that Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Texas are the states with the top rates of seniors facing the threat of hunger respectively. Due to food insecurity and hunger, the elderly population experiences negative effects on their overall health and mental wellbeing. Not only are they more prone to reporting heart attacks, other cardiac conditions, and asthma, but food insecure seniors are also 60% more likely to develop depression.
Minority groups are affected by hunger to far greater extent than the Caucasian population in the United States. According to research conducted by Washington University in St. Louis on food insufficiency by race, 11.5% of Whites experience food insufficiency compared to 22.98% of African Americans, 16.67% of American Indians, and 26.66% of Hispanics when comparing each racial sample group.
Feeding America reports that 29% of all Hispanic children and 38% of all African American children received emergency food assistance in 2010. White children received more than half the amount of emergency food assistance with 11% receiving aid. However, Hispanic household are less likely to have interaction with SNAP than other ethnic groups and received assistance from the program.
There exist distinct differences between how hunger is experienced in the rural and urban settings. Rural counties experience high food insecurity rates twice as often as urban counties. It has been reported that approximately 3 million rural households are food insecure which is equal to 15 percent of the total population of rural households. This reflects the fact that 7.5 million people in rural regions live below the federal poverty line. This poverty in rural communities is more commonly found in Southern states.
In addition, rural areas possess fewer grocery stores than urban regions with similar population density and geography. However, rural areas do have more supermarkets than similar urban areas. Research has discovered that rural counties' poverty level and racial composition does not have a direct, significant association to supermarket access in the area. Urban areas by contrast have shown through countless studies that an increase in the African American population correlates to fewer supermarkets and the ones available require residents to travel a longer distance. Despite these differences both city and rural areas experience a higher rate of hunger than suburban areas.
Living in regions that are considered food deserts can prevent individuals from easily accessing healthy food markets and grocery stores due to lack of availability. Studies have shown that within these food deserts there exists distinct racial disparities. Compared to Caucasian neighborhoods, predominately African American neighborhoods have been reported to have half the amount of chain supermarkets available to residents.
Despite racial differences, the vast majority of individuals living in food deserts struggle with transportation to food sources. Since these areas are low-income neighborhoods, many families may be unable to have the financial means to easily and regularly access supermarkets or grocery stores that tend to be located far from their home. This acts as an additional obstacle individuals must face when trying to provide food for their family and prevent hunger.
As of 2012, the United States government spent about $50 billion annually on 10 programs, mostly administrated by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which in total deliver food assistance to one in five Americans.
The largest and only universal program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program. In the 2012 fiscal year, $74.6 billion in food assistance was distributed. As of December 2012[update], 47.8 million Americans were receiving on average $133.73 per month in food assistance.
Despite efforts to increase uptake, an estimated 15 million eligible Americans are still not using the program. Historically, about 40 million Americans were using the program in 2010, while in 2001, 18 million were claiming food stamps. After cut backs to welfare in the early 1980s and late 1990s, private sector aid had begun to overtake public aid such as food stamps as the fastest growing form of food assistance, although the public sector provided much more aid in terms of volume.
This changed in the early 21st century; the public sector's rate of increase in the amount of food aid dispensed again overtook the private sector's. President George W. Bush's administration undertook bipartisan efforts to increase the reach of the food stamp program, increasing its budget and reducing both the stigma associated with applying for aid and barriers imposed by red tape.  Cuts in the food stamp programme came into force in November 2013, impacting an estimated 48 million poorer Americans, including 22 million children. Commentators have stated hardship could worsen if a new Farm bill is passed: the version currently backed by the Democrats has a further $4 billion worth of cuts, while the version backed by Republicans would cut food stamps by $40 billion.
Most other programs are targeted at particular types of citizen. The largest of these is the School Lunch program, which in 2010 helped feed 32 million children a day. The second largest is the School Breakfast Program, feeding 16 million children in 2010. The next largest is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which provide food aid for about 9 million women and children in 2010.
A program that is neither universal nor targeted is Emergency Food Assistance Program. This is a successor to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation which used to distribute surplus farm production direct to poor people; now the program works in partnership with the private sector, by delivering the surplus produce to food banks and other civil society agencies.
Another potential approach to mitigating hunger and food insecurity is modifying agricultural policy. The implementation of policies that reduce the subsidization of crops such as corn and soybeans and increase subsidies for the production of fresh fruits and vegetables would effectively provide low-income populations with greater access to affordable and healthy foods. This method is limited by the fact that the prices of animal-based products, oils, sugar, and related food items have dramatically decreased on the global scale in the past twenty to fifty years. According to the Nutritional Review Journal, a reduction or removal of subsidies for the production of these foods will not appreciably change their lower cost in comparison to healthier options such as fruits and vegetables.
Local and state governments can also work to pass legislation that calls for the establishment of healthy food retailers in low-income neighborhoods classified as food deserts. The implementation of such policies can reduce hunger and food insecurity by increasing the availability and variety of healthy food options and providing a convenient means of access. Such policies may be limited by the oligopolistic nature of supermarkets, in which a few large supermarket chains maintain the large majority of market share and exercise considerable influence over retail locations and prices.
If it is unfeasible to implement policies aimed at grocery store construction in low-income neighborhoods, local and state governments can instead invest in transportation infrastructure. This would provide residents of low-income neighborhoods with greater access to healthy food options at more remote supermarkets. This strategy may be limited by the fact that low-income populations often face time constraints in managing employment and caring for children and may not have the time to commute to buy healthy foods. Furthermore, this method does not address the issue of neighborhood deprivation, failing to resolve the disparities in access to goods and services across geographical space.
The oldest type of formal hunger relief establishment used in the United States is believed to be the almshouse, but these are no longer in existence. In the 21st century, hunger relief agencies run by civil society include:
Together, these civil society food assistance establishments are sometimes called the "Emergency Food Assistance System" (EFAS). In 2010, an estimated 37 million Americans received food from the EFAS. However, the amount of aid it supplies is much less than the public sector, with an estimate made in the year 2000 suggesting that the EFAS is able to give out only about $9.5 worth of food per person per month. According to a comprehensive government survey completed in 2002, about 80% of emergency kitchens and food pantries, over 90% of food banks, and all known food rescue organisations, were established in the US after 1981, with much of the growth occurring after 1991.
British Colonists attempting to settle in North America during the 16th and early 17th century often faced severe hunger. Compared with South America, readily available food could be hard to come by. Many settlers starved to death, leading to several colonies being abandoned. Other settlers were saved after being supplied with food by Native Americans, with the intercession of Pocahontas being a famous example. It did not take long however for colonists to adapt to conditions in the new world, discovering North America to be a place of extraordinary fertility. According to author Peter K. Eisinger, the historian Robert Beverley's portrayal of America as the "Garden of the World" was already a stock image as early as 1705.
By the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, hunger was already considerably less severe than in Western Europe. Even by 1750, low prevalence of hunger had helped provide American Colonists with an estimated life expectancy of 51 years, while in Britain the figure was 37, in France 26 - by 1800, life expectancies had improved to 56 years for the U.S., 33 years for France and dropped to 36 years for Britain. The relative scarcity of hunger in the U.S. was due in part to low population pressure in relation to fertile land, and as labor shortages prevented any able-bodied person from suffering from extreme poverty associated with unemployment.
Until the early 19th century, even the poorest citizens of the United States were generally protected from hunger by a combination of factors. The ratio of productive land to population was high. Upper class Americans often still held to the old European ideal of Noblesse oblige and made sure their workers had sufficient food. Labour shortages meant the poor could invariably find a position - although until the American Revolution this often involved indentured servitude, this at least protected the poor from the unpredictable nature of wage labor, and sometimes paupers were rewarded with their own plot of land at the end of their period of servitude. Additionally, working class traditions of looking out for each other were strong.
Social and economic conditions changed substantially in the early 19th century, especially with the market reforms of the 1830s. While overall prosperity increased, productive land became harder to come by, and was often only available for those who could afford substantial rates. It became more difficult to make a living either from public lands or a small farm without substantial capital to buy up to date technology. Sometimes small farmers were forced off their lands by economic pressure and became homeless. American society responded by opening up numerous Almshouses, and some municipal officials began giving out small sums of cash to the poor. Such measures did not fully check the rise in hunger; by 1850, life expectancy in the US had dropped to 43 years, about the same as then prevailed in Western Europe.
The number of hungry and homeless people in the U.S. increased in the 1870s due to industrialization. Though economic developments were hugely beneficial overall, driving America's Gilded Age, they had a negative impact on some of the poorest citizens. As was the case in 19th century Britain, many influential Americans believed in classical liberalism and opposed government intervention to help the hungry, as they thought it could encourage dependency and would disrupt the operation of the free market. The 1870s saw the AICP and the American branch of the Charity Organization Society successfully lobby to end the practice where city official would hand out small sums of cash to the poor. Unlike in Britain though, there was no nationwide restrictions on private efforts to help the hungry, and civil society immediately began to provide alternative aid for the poor, establishing soup kitchens in U.S. cities.
By the turn of the century, improved economic conditions were helping to reduce hunger for all sections of society, even the poorest. The early 20th century saw a substantial rise in agricultural productivity; while this led to rural unemployment even in the otherwise "roaring" 1920s, it helped lower food prices throughout the United States. During World War I and its aftermath, the U.S. was able to send over 20 millions of food to relieve hunger in Europe. The United States has since been a world leader for relieving hunger internationally, although her foreign aid has sometimes been criticised for being poorly targeted and politicised. An early critic who argued against the U.S. on these grounds in the 1940s was Lord Boyd-Orr, the first head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
The United State's progress in reducing domestic hunger had been thrown into reverse by the Great depression of the 1930s. The existence of hunger within the U.S. became a widely discussed issue due to coverage in the Mass media. Both civil society and government responded. Existing soup kitchens and bread lines run by the private sector increased their opening times, and many new ones were established. Government sponsored relief was one of the main strands of the New Deal launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some of the government established Alphabet agencies aimed to relieve poverty by raising wages, others by reducing unemployment as with the Works Progress Administration. The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation aimed to directly tackle hunger by providing poor people with food. By the late 1940s, these various relief efforts combined with improved economic conditions had been successful in substantially reducing hunger within the United States.
According to sociology professor Janet Poppendieck, hunger within the US was widely considered to be a solved problem until the mid-1960s. By the mid sixties, several states had ended the free distribution of federal food surpluses, instead providing an early form of food stamps, which had the benefit of allowing recipients to choose food of their liking, rather than having to accept whatever happened to be in surplus at the time. There was however a minimum charge; some people could not afford the stamps, causing them to suffer severe hunger. One response from American society to the rediscovery of hunger was to step up the support provided by private sector establishments like soup kitchens and meal centers. The food bank, a new form of civil society hunger relief agency, was invented in 1967 by John van Hengel. It was not however until the 1980s that U.S. food banks began to experience rapid growth.
A second response to the "rediscovery" of hunger in the mid-to-late sixties, spurred by Joseph S. Clark's and Robert F. Kennedy's tour of the Mississippi Delta, was the extensive lobbying of politicians to improve welfare. The Hunger lobby, as it was widely called by journalists, was largely successful in achieving its aims, at least in the short term. In 1967 a Senate subcommittee held widely publicized hearings on the issue, and in 1969 President Richard Nixon made an emotive address to Congress where he called for government action to end hunger in the U.S.
In the 1970s, U.S. federal expenditure on hunger relief grew by about 500%, with food stamps distributed free of charge to those in greatest need. According to Poppendieck, welfare was widely considered preferable to grass roots efforts, as the latter could be unreliable, did not give recipients consumer-style choice in the same way as did food stamps, and risked recipients feeling humiliated by having to turn to charity. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's administration scaled back welfare provision, leading to a rapid rise in activity from grass roots hunger relief agencies.
Poppendieck says that for the first few years after the change, there was vigorous opposition from the political Left, who argued that the state welfare was much more suitable for meeting recipients needs. But in the decades that followed, while never achieving the reduction in hunger as did food stamps in the 1970s, food banks became an accepted part of America's response to hunger. Demand for the services of emergency hunger relief agencies increased further in the late 1990s, after the "end of welfare as we know it" with President Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.
In comparison to other advanced economies, the U.S. had high levels of hunger even during the first few years of the 21st century, due in part to greater inequality and relatively less spending on welfare. As was generally the case across the world, hunger in the U.S. was made worse by the lasting global inflation in the price of food that began in late 2006 and by the financial crisis of 2008. By 2012, about 50 million Americans were food insecure, approximately 1 in 6 of the population, with the proportion of children facing food insecurity even higher at about 1 in 4.
Hunger has increasingly begun to sometimes affect even middle class Americans. According to a 2012 study by UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, even married couples who both work but have low incomes will sometimes now require emergency food assistance.
In the 1980s and 90s, advocates of small government had been largely successful in de-politicizing hunger, making it hard to launch effective efforts to address the root causes, such as changing government policy to reduce poverty among low earners. In contrast to the 1960s and 70s, the 21st century has seen little significant political lobbying for an end to hunger within America, though by 2012 there had been an increase in efforts by various activists and journalists to raise awareness of the problem. American society has however responded to increased hunger by substantially increasing its provision of emergency food aid and related relief, from both the private and public sector, and from the two working together in partnership.
According to a USDA report, 14.3% of American households were food insecure during at least some of 2013, falling to 14% in 2014. The report stated the fall was not statistically significant. The percentage of households experiencing very low food security remained at 5.6% for both 2013 and 2014. In a July 2016 discussion on the importance of private sector engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals, Malcolm Preston the global sustainability leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, suggested that unlike the older Millennial development goals, the SDGs are applicable to the advanced economies due to issues such as hunger in the United States. Preston stated that one in seven Americans struggle with hunger, with food banks in the US now more active than ever.