15.9% of Americans Struggle With Hunger

15.9% of Americans Struggle With Hunger

Hunger is a huge issue in today’s world, and you might be surprised to know that it’s not only a problem in emerging countries, but also in developed ones. For example, one in six people in the U.S. is struggling with hunger. From a cost perspective, in 2011, food insecure people reported falling $21.8 billion short of buying enough food to meet the needs of their families.

As with any major issue, there are no quick and easy answers or solutions to this problem. Making inroads to any major challenge, however, starts at the ground level, and Nielsen has teamed up with Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S., to zero in on some of the granular questions behind this national issue, particularly the “where?” and the “why?” of hunger.

The results of this collaboration is the third installment of Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” analysis, which highlights food insecurity, the shortage of food budgets and the way that food costs vary depending on where you live in the U.S. Nielsen was one of three contributors to the study. The findings are key, as they shed light on the geographic regions where need is most prominent, as well as what resources might be needed to help remedy the problem.

“Millions of Americans live at risk of hunger,” said Bob Aiken, president and CEO of Feeding America. “‘Map the Meal Gap 2013’ data help us understand how food insecurity is manifest in each county and congressional district in our nation. It will help policy makers and our elected officials understand the challenges they face in addressing hunger in the communities they serve.”


What it Means to Be Food Insecure

As you might expect, arriving at county-level estimates of need is no easy feat. In its Map the Meal Gap study, Feeding America analyzed a mix of information, including information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the USDA, and food price data from Nielsen.

At the heart of the study is food insecurity, a term defined by the USDA as a measure of limited or uncertain access to adequate food at the household level. Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between buying nutritionally-adequate food and paying for important basic needs, such as housing, utilities, or medical care. In the U.S., the food insecurity rate, according to the USDA, is 15.9 percent—49 million people. Nearly 16 million children (21.6%) are living in food insecure households.

Food insecurity isn’t limited to those living in or near poverty, as 27 percent of food insecure households report incomes above the eligibility threshold for most federal nutrition safety net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). For these households, private charitable feeding organizations such as food banks may be the only available source of help. Understanding the overlap and gaps between food insecurity and federal nutrition program thresholds provides context for strategic planning around charitable interventions as well as informing the policy discussion to better meet the needs of people at risk of hunger at all income levels.

“Food insecurity is one of the leading public health challenges in the United States,” said Dr. Craig Gundersen, Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, an international food insecurity expert and the lead researcher of the Map the Meal Gap study. “We undertook this research to demonstrate the extent and prevalence of food insecurity at both the county and congressional-district level. This data has the potential to redefine the way service providers and policy makers address food insecurity in the communities they serve.”

All Counties Have Some Level of Food Insecurity

In addition to taking a macro view of hunger, the recent Map the Meal Gap analysis estimates food insecurity levels for all 3,143 counties in the U.S. It also found that food insecurity exists in every county and congressional district in the nation. There are, however, counties that are in greater need than others, which Feeding America deems “high food insecurity rate” counties [1]. These counties are found in eight of the nine geographic divisions identified by the U.S. Census Bureau and have food insecurity rates of more than 20 percent. That means at least one in five persons in those areas is struggling with hunger. The heaviest concentrations of these counties are in the South Atlantic and East South Central states, and they’re more likely to be rural than the average county in the U.S. [2].

Some of the key takeaways from this year’s Map the Meal Gap study include:

  • Holmes County, Miss. has the highest rate of food insecurity at 35.2%, and Slope County, N.D. has the lowest rate of food insecurity at 2.4%.
  • Loudoun County, Va. has one of the highest median household incomes in the nation, yet nearly 17,000 of its residents are food insecure.
  • The nation’s poorest state, Mississippi, has eight counties among the top 10 most food insecure counties in the nation. Roughly one in three residents in those counties faces hunger.
  • Los Angeles County has the most food insecure children of any county, as more than 650,000 children live in food insecure homes.

In addition to highlighting rates of food insecurity, this year’s study looked at the average cost of food. At the national level, the average cost per meal is $2.67—based on the amount that food secure individuals spend. Costs vary across the country, however, ranging from as high as $4.37 in Leelanau County, Michigan to as low as $1.85 in Maverick County, Texas. The study also found that each food insecure individual needed an additional food budget of $2.05 per day, which equates to almost $750 a year.

In order to address the problem of hunger, we must first understand it. Feeding America undertook the Map the Meal Gap project to learn more about the face of hunger at the local community level. By understanding the population in need, communities can better identify strategies for reaching the people who most need food assistance.

For additional information about Feeding America, Nielsen’s work as a Mission Partner and our contribution to the Map the Meal Gap analysis, visit Feeding America’s website and the 2013 Map the Meal Gap analysis.


[1] “High food insecurity rate” counties represent those counties falling into the top 10% of food insecurity rates, n = 314.

[2] South Atlantic states include: DC, DE, FL, GA, MD, NC, SC, VA & WV. East South Central states include: AL, KY, MS & TN.