Hunger and Food Insecurity in the United States

In 2018, 11.1% of US households, or 37.2 million Americans, suffered from food insecurity. 4.3% of all American households had very low food security. The major cause of food insecurity is a lack of financial resources, which is connected to unemployment, insufficient income, and living in areas with persistent poverty. Marginalized communities, including African-Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic people have higher rates of food insecurity. Single-person households or households with children, as well as those located in rural or principal-city metropolitan areas, were also more affected.

You may also be interested in our other post where we provide a high-level report overview on Impact of Hunger in the United States.

Food Insecurity — Overall Figures

  • In 2018, 11.1% (or 14.3 million) of the US households were food insecure, with low or high levels of insecurity. A year before, 11.8% of households lacked food security.
  • Notably, 2018 was the first year when food insecurity declined to the pre-recession level.
  • Out of all US households, 6.8% had low food security, and 4.3% had very low food security.
  • Low food security is defined as “households that obtained enough food to avoid substantially disrupting their eating patterns or reducing food intake by using a variety of coping strategies, such as eating less varied diets, participating in Federal food assistance programs, or getting emergency food from community food pantries, while very low food insecurity is defined as “normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”
  • The above statistics translate into 37.2 million people suffering from food insecurity, six million children living in food-insecure households, and 540,000 children living in households with very low food security. Overall, there were 12.6 million people that had very low food security.


  • The major cause of hunger and food insecurity in the US is a lack of financial resources, which is associated with unemployment and insufficient income. The issue is more likely to occur in areas with high poverty rates and low homeownership levels. African-Americans and American Indians who live in counties with persistent poverty are also more at risk.
  • 29.1% of low-income households (defined as those who are “below 185 percent of the poverty threshold,” which is $25,465) experienced food insecurity in 2018.
  • Counties with the lowest food security rates (with most of them located in South Atlantic, East South Central, and West South Central region) have the average unemployment rate of 7%, while the national figure is 5%.
  • At the same time, the average poverty rate in those counties is at 27%, compared to the national average of 16%. One such county with high food insecurity, Todd County in South Dakota, has a poverty rate of 52%.
  • The median income in counties that are highly affected by food insecurity is $35,067, against the national average of $49,754. Additionally, homeownership rates in food-insecure counties is 65%, compared to 71% across all counties.
  • Furthermore, 66% of the least food-secure counties overlap with those that the USDA Economic Research Service defines as “persistent poverty counties,” which means that at least 20% of its residents have been living in poverty for the last 30 years.
  • According to Feeding America, low-income families are usually influenced by a set of overlapping problems, including low wages, lack of affordable housing, social isolation, and acute and chronic health issues.
  • Some of those concurrent issues, such as barriers to transportation and lack of affordable housing, affect food budgets, thus causing food insecurity. An executive from Feeding America believes that straining the food budget is the most common choice when families have unexpected expenses.

Food Insecurity in Marginalized Communities

  • In 2018, 21.2% of African-American households and 16.2% Hispanic households in the US were food insecure.
  • In the same period, there was very low food security in 9.1% of African-American households and 5.1% of Hispanic households.
  • Therefore, out of 16.6 million African-American households, 3.5 million are food insecure, while 1.5 million have very low food security. Among 18.1 million Hispanic households, 2.9 million are food insecure, with 919,000 having very low food security.
  • Among households with children, 25.2% of African-American ones experienced food insecurity, as well as 16.8% of Hispanic ones. To compare, 10.4% of white households with kids suffered from some level of food insecurity.
  • 1.4% of African-American households had very low food security among children, compared to 0.9% Hispanic households, and 0.3% white households.
  • Furthermore, 92% of counties where African-Americans account for the majority of the population have high food insecurity levels. One such county, Jefferson county, has the highest food insecurity level in the US (above 36%), while also having a 47% poverty rate.
  • Similarly, 69% of the counties where most of the population identifies as Native Americans have high food insecurity rates, with an average poverty rate of 33%.

Food Insecurity — Other Demographics

  • Overall, households with children are more likely to be affected by food insecurity. 13.9% of households with kids were food insecure, as well as 14.3% of those with children under six.
  • The percentage rose significantly if the household with children is led by a single parent. 27.8% of households with kids led by a single woman were affected by food insecurity, and 15.9% of those headed by a single man.
  • Additionally, 14.2% of women living alone were food insecure, compared to 12.5% of men.
  • Food insecurity was higher in those living in principal-city metropolitan areas (13.2%) and non-metropolitan areas (12.7%), compared to suburban areas and non-principal-city metropolitan areas (8.9%).
  • Geographically, the food insecurity rate was the highest in the South (12%). Northeast, Midwest, and West all have below-average food insecurity rates.

Research Strategy

The majority of our findings come from the “Household Food Security in the United States in 2018″ report by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the “Map the Meal Gap” report by Feeding America. While the reports don’t differentiate between food insecurity and hunger, USDA breaks down food insecurity into two types (as explained above), with “very low food security” falling close to “hunger.” Whenever possible, we included the overall figures, as well as figures for each type of food insecurity.

Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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