This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released
its annual report on household food security in the United States.
According to USDA, some 12.5 million households, or roughly 11
percent of all households, experienced "household food insecurity"
at some point in 2006 and some 35 million people lived in
households with some form of food insecurity. Most of these
households were low income. The report showed little change in food
security levels in the U.S. over the last decade.
Food Insecurity, Hunger, and
While these numbers sound ominous, it is important to understand
what "food insecurity" means. According to the USDA, "food
insecurity" is usually a recurring and episodic problem rather than
a chronic condition. In 2006, around two-thirds of food insecure
households experienced "low food security," meaning that these
households managed to avoid any disruption or reduction in food
intake throughout the year but were forced by financial pressures
to reduce "variety in their diets" or rely on a "few basic foods"
at various times in the year. According to the USDA, the
remaining one-third of food insecure households (around 4 percent
of all households) experienced "very low food security," meaning
that at least once in the year their actual intake of food was
reduced due to a lack of funds for food purchase. At the extreme,
about 1.4 percent of all adults in the U.S. went an entire day
without eating at least once during 2006 due to lack of funds for
Children are generally shielded from food insecurity. Around one
child in two hundred experienced "very low food security" and
reduced food intake at least one time during 2006. One child in a
thousand went a whole day without eating at least once during the
year because the family lacked funds for food.
Political advocates proclaim that the USDA reports suggest there
is widespread chronic hunger in the U.S. But the USDA clearly and
specifically does not identify food insecurity with the more
intense condition of "hunger," which it defines as "discomfort,
illness, weakness, or pain...caused by prolonged involuntary lack
What is rarely discussed is that the government's own data show
that the overwhelming majority of food insecure adults are, like
most adult Americans, overweight or obese. Among adult males
experiencing food insecurity, fully 70 percent are overweight or
obese. Nearly three-quarters of adult women
experiencing food insecurity are either overweight or obese, and
nearly half (45 percent) are obese. Virtually no food insecure
adults are underweight.
Food insecure men are slightly less likely to be overweight or
obese than men who are food secure (70 percent compared to 75
percent). But food insecure women are actually more likely to be
obese or overweight than are women who are food secure (73 percent
compared to 64 percent).
Eating Too Much, Not Too Little
Thus, the government's own data show that, even though they may
have brief episodes of reduced food intake, most adults in food
insecure households actually consume too much, not too little,
food. To improve health, policies must be devised to encourage
these individuals to avoid chronic over-consumption of calories and
to spread their food intake more evenly over the course of each
month to avoid episodic shortfalls.
Yet most proposed policy responses to food insecurity call for
giving low-income persons more money to purchase food despite the
fact that most low-income persons, like most Americans, already eat
too much. Such policies are likely to make the current situation
worse, not better. One commonly proposed policy, for example, is to
expand participation in the Food Stamp program. Participation in
the Food Stamp program, however, does not appear to reduce food
insecurity. Households receiving food stamps do not have improved
food security compared to similar households with the same non-food
stamp income who do not participate in the program.
Moreover, participation in the Food Stamp program does not appear
to increase diet quality. Compared to similar households who do not
receive food stamps but have the same non-food stamp income,
households receiving food stamps do not consume more fruits and
vegetables but do, unfortunately, consume more added sugars and
While the Food Stamp program has little positive effect on food
quality, considerable evidence indicates that the program has the
counter-productive effect of increasing obesity. For example, a
recent study funded by USDA found that low-income women who
participate in the Food Stamp program are substantially more likely
to be obese than women in households with the same non-food stamp
income who did not receive food stamps. Over the long term, food
stamp receipt was found to increase obesity in men as well.
While other research has failed to confirm this link between food
stamps and obesity, the possibility that this program has harmful
effects remains quite real.
Developing a rational policy on nutrition and poor Americans
will require dispelling common misconceptions concerning poverty
and obesity. For example, one common misconception is that poor
people become obese because they are forced, due to a lack of
financial resources, to eat too many junk foods that are high in
fat and added sugar. According to this theory, poor persons
struggle to obtain sufficient calories to maintain themselves and
are forced to rely on junk foods as the cheapest source of
calories, but because junk foods have high "energy density" (more
calories per ounce of food content), these foods paradoxically
induce a tendency to overeat and thereby cause weight gain.
One problem with this theory is that junk foods are not a
particularly cheap source of calories. For example, soft drinks are
high in added sugar and are generally associated with weight gain,
but as a source of calories, brand name soft drinks such as
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are often more expensive (in terms of calories
per dollar) than milk. Snack foods such as potato chips and
donuts cost two to five times more per calorie than healthier
staples such as beans, rice, and pasta. Families truly seeking to
maximize calories per dollar of food expenditure would focus not on
junk and snack foods but on traditional low-cost staples such as
beans, rice, flour, pasta, and milk. These foods are not only less
expensive but actually have below-average energy density and
therefore a lower potential to promote weight gain.
In reality, poor people are increasingly becoming overweight for
the same reason that most Americans are becoming overweight: They
eat too much and exercise too little. Like the rest of America, the
poor eat too many high-fat foods and foods with added sugars, but
they do this for the same reason the average American over-consumes
these foods: They are highly palatable. While it would be desirable
for poor people (like all Americans) to drink fewer soft drinks and
eat more broccoli, simply expanding the Food Stamp program would
not accomplish that goal. What is required is a very difficult
effort to change food preferences.
Contrary to the claims of poverty advocates, the major dietary
problem facing poor Americans is too much, not too little, food.
Public policies should be directed toward encouraging the poor to
avoid chronic over-consumption, exercise more, and reduce intake of
foods rich in fat and added sugar.
Robert Rector is Senior
Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage
et al., "Household Food Security in the United States, 2005," p.
shares of food secure and food insecure individuals who are
underweight, overweight, and obese was calculated using body mass
index (BMI) data and food security data from the 2003-2004 National
Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The BMI cutoff
points for underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obese were
calculated using the BMI ranges for adults as reported by the
Centers for Disease Control. Specifically, an adult with a BMI of
less than 18.5 is underweight; between 18.5 and 24.9 is within the
normal weight range; between 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight;
and at or above 30 is obese. See Centers for Disease Control,
"National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey," November 2007,
at www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm, and Centers
for Disease Control, "About BMI for Adults," May 22, 2007, at www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/bmi/adult_BMI/about_adult_BMI.htm.
Craig Gunderson and Victor Oliveira, "The
Food Stamp Program and Food Insufficiency," American Journal of
Agricultural Economics, November 2001.
Parke E. Wilde, Paul E. McNamara, and
Christine K. Ranney, "The Effect of Income and Food Programs on
Dietary Quality: A Seemingly Unrelated Regression Analysis with
Error Components," American Journal of Agricultural
Economics, November 1999.
Charles Baum, "The Effects of Food Stamps on
Obesity," U.S. Department of Agriculture, Contractor and
Cooperator Report No. 34, September 2007.
Michele Ver Ploeg, Lisa Macino, Biing-Hwan
Lin, Food and Nutrition Assistance Programs and
Obesity:1976-2002, ERR-48, U.S Department of Agriculture,
Economic Research Service, September 2007.
Adam Drewnowski and S.E. Spencer, "Poverty
and Obesity: The Role of Energy Density and Energy Costs,"
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January2004, pp.
This estimate is based on the non-sale prices
of two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola Classic, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper
compared to two-gallon containers of whole milk in six stores in
the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Barbara Rolls and Robert A. Barnett, The
Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan (New York: HarperCollins,
2000), pp. 124-25.