Food Security and Nutrition Assistance

ERS monitors the food security of U.S. households through an annual, nationally representative survey. While most U.S. households are food secure, a minority of U.S. households experience food insecurity at times during the year, meaning that their access to adequate food for active, healthy living is limited by lack of money and other resources. Some experience very low food security, a more severe range of food insecurity where food intake of one or more members is reduced and normal eating patterns are disrupted. Reliable monitoring of food security contributes to the effective operation of USDA’s 15 food and nutrition assistance programs aimed at reducing food insecurity.

Size of farm is related to primary source of household income

The roughly 2.1 million family farms in the United States vary significantly in the level and sources of household income of their principal operators. In 2011, 60 percent of family farms had gross sales of less than $10,000 and negative average farm incomes, typically receiving all of their household income from off-farm sources. Family farms with gross sales of $10,000 to $249,999 represented 30 percent of family farms in 2011, and the households operating these farms earned, on average, positive returns from their operations. Ten percent of family farms in 2011 were considered to be commercial farms, grossing $250,000 or more. While receiving less in off-farm income than those operating small farms, commercial family farm households earned significantly more on the farms they operated. As a result, they had average household incomes more than twice the level of smaller farm households. This chart is from the Farm Household Well-being topic page on the ERS website.

The prevalence of food insecurity was unchanged from 2015 to 2016

In 2016, 87.7 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the year. The remaining 12.3 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 4.9 percent (6.1 million households) that had very low food security. Both food insecurity and very low food security were essentially unchanged from 2015. Food insecurity increased from 10.5 percent in 2000 to nearly 12 percent in 2004, declined to 11 percent in 2005-07, then increased to 14.6 in 2008.

Food insecurity rates are highest for single mother households and lowest for elderly

In 2016, 38.3 percent of households with incomes below the Federal poverty line were food insecure. Food-insecure households include those with low food security and very low food security. Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for single-parent households, and for Black and Hispanic households. Food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas than in suburban areas.

One in six households with children were affected by food insecurity in 2016

Parents often shield children from experiencing food insecurity, particularly very low food security, even when the parents themselves are food insecure. In 2016, 16.5 percent of households with children were food insecure. In about half of those food-insecure households with children, only the adults experienced food insecurity. In the other half, both children and adults were food insecure sometime during the year. In 0.8 percent of U.S. households with children (298,000 households) both children and adults experienced instances of very low food security.

Prevalence of food insecurity is not uniform across the country

Food insecurity rates differ across States due to both the characteristics of their populations and to State-level policies and economic conditions. The estimated prevalence of food insecurity during 2014-16 ranged from 8.7 percent in Hawaii to 18.7 percent in Mississippi. (Data for 2014-16 were combined to provide more reliable statistics at the State level.)

Expenditures for USDA’s food assistance programs down in 2016

Federal expenditures for USDA's 15 food and nutrition assistance programs totaled $101.9 billion in fiscal 2016, or 2 percent less than the previous fiscal year. This was about 7 percent less than the historical high of $109.2 billion set in fiscal 2013. Expenditures decreased by 4 percent for both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC in fiscal 2016, but increased by 7 percent for the School Breakfast Program, by 6 percent for the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and by 4 percent for the National School Lunch Program.

Children accounted for 44 percent of SNAP participants in 2016

In fiscal 2016, children accounted for 44.1 percent of all SNAP participants, nearly the same as in fiscal 2015 (44.0 percent). Children younger than five made up 13.4 percent of participants in fiscal 2016, while school-age children made up 30.7 percent. Adults age 18-59 represented 44.1 percent of SNAP participants in fiscal 2016, compared with 45.4 percent in fiscal 2015. Adults age 60 and older's share of the SNAP caseload grew from 10.6 percent in fiscal 2015 to 11.8 percent in fiscal 2016.

Participation in SNAP varies across States, reflecting differences in need and program policies

In fiscal 2016, SNAP served an average of 44.2 million people per month, or 13.7 percent of Americans. Southeastern States have a particularly high share of residents receiving SNAP benefits, with participation rates of 15 to 19.5 percent. In fiscal 2016, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, and New Hampshire were the only States with 8 percent or less of their populations receiving SNAP benefits.