Local-Level Predictors of Household Food Insecurity
Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Investigator: Bartfeld, Judi, and Lingling Wang
Institution: University of Wisconsin, Madison
Department of Consumer Science
School of Human Ecology
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Madison, WI 53706
Household food security—the assured access of all people to enough food
for a healthy and active life—has received considerable attention from
policymakers and researchers over the past decade. The prevalence of
food insecurity varies substantially across States, with most of this variability
accounted for by differences in the demographic composition of States as
well as differences in their economic and policy contexts. Although research
has made considerable headway in understanding cross-State food security
patterns, there is little empirical evidence about how food security varies
within States or about the factors that may contribute to such variation.
This analysis uses new data from the Wisconsin Schools Food Security
Survey, a self-administered survey designed to measure food security
among households with elementary school children. The report provides
findings from a study that examined the relationship between both household
and contextual characteristics and food security among households
with elementary school children in Wisconsin. Food security is measured
with the standard six-item version of the food security scale. Data were
collected in several waves beginning in spring 2003, with the final year of
data collected as part of the current project. A variety of contextual variables
at the school, Zip Code, and county levels were appended to the data.
This study conceptualizes food insecurity not merely as an indicator of
economic hardship but rather as the result of a more complex interplay
among personal resources, public resources, and the economic and
social contexts in which a household resides. The report focuses on
several components of the food security infrastructure, including housing,
transportation, food outlets, nutrition assistance programs, and local labor
markets. Key findings include the following:
- The demographic factors that predict food insecurity—including low
income, renting versus owning a home, larger household size, less
than college education, and no employed people in the household—are
consistent with established findings, providing evidence of the validity
of the self-administered scale as a measure of the underlying food
- Housing costs play a significant role in contributing to food insecurity.
Results imply that each $100 increase in median rent is associated with a
13-percent increase in the odds of food insecurity.
- Access to transportation—including both private vehicles and public
transportation—significantly reduces the risk of food insecurity.
- Households with greater proximity to grocery stores or supermarkets
have less risk of food insecurity. Results indicate that each additional mile
from a supermarket or grocery store increases the odds of food insecurity
by 2 percent.
- Local labor markets also play a role. The odds of food insecurity increase
by an estimated 4 percent for each percentage-point increase in the county
- Households in urban areas have significantly greater risk of food insecurity.
- No specific evidence was found that more widely available nutrition assistance
programs—including the School Breakfast Program, the National
School Lunch Program, and the Food Stamp Program—have measurable
impacts on food security, though the study emphasizes the difficulty in
adequately controlling for the role of self-selection.
An important implication of this research is that even communities that have
not collected local food security data can make informed assessments of
whether they are at higher or lower risk, based on local demographics and
local characteristics. Furthermore, the overall finding—that an array of local
attributes, which are at least partially subject to local influence, plays a role
in food security—implies that communities interested in promoting food
security have a variety of avenues worth pursuing. Strategies implied by this
research include efforts to promote affordable housing, to increase access to
public and private transportation, and to increase the availability of grocery
stores and supermarkets. Important future directions include efforts to
understand the roots of the rural-urban food security differential and efforts
to identify the role of participation in nutrition assistance programs while
accounting for the bias introduced by self-selection.