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Addressing Food Insecurity

by Mariah Coley last modified Jul 07, 2017 02:29 PM
Food insecurity has been defined as the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

Addressing Food Insecurity

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Food insecurity has been directly linked to poorer physical and mental health, as well as to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.  Statistically, food insecure women are more likely to be overweight and obese, while childhood food insecurity has been associated with poor academic performance. Sustainable agriculture and food systems afford all individuals and households consistent access to quality foods, in sufficient quantities to meet daily nutritional needs.

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Food insecurity across the US population is associated with a decline in household food supplies, less frequent fruit and vegetable consumption, higher levels of unemployment, increased participation in food assistance programs, and increased levels of disordered eating behavior.  According to Kaiser et al. (2003), food insecurity can be viewed as a continuum with varying degrees of severity dependent on the level of hunger experienced within the household.  Food insecure without hunger is the least severe and constitutes families that worry about running out of food, and that will adjust purchasing behavior or consumption to affect the quality of the food supply.  At the most severe level, all members of a household experience hunger for extended periods of time.  Moderate levels of food insecurity can be seen in families where parents or adults may experience hunger, while kids maintain nutritionally adequate diets.

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Agronomic research, such as in variety selection, crop breeding, and cropping system improvements has increased the quantity and quality of the global food supply. Photo: Agricultural Sustainability Institute

In California, a 2015 report estimated that almost six million individuals, or 15% of the population, experienced some level of food insecurity. Minority households are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, especially those families constituting recent or undocumented immigrants.  Adequate and consistent income is closely linked to levels of food insecurity.  Many Mexican-American households, for example, experience seasonal cycles of food insecurity related to the timing of agricultural employment. Increasing food worker labor equality and fair wages could play a significant role in addressing a lack of sufficient access or quality of food.

There are a variety of approaches that may contribute toward addressing food insecurity, at local to national or international scales.  Agronomic research, for example, has led to new technologies and practices that have increased the quantity and quality of the global food supply. Such agronomic innovations might include variety selection, genetic modification, or cropping system improvements. Scientific and practical advancements in areas like these are crucial in developing robust, enduring food systems. University of California researchers, faculty, staff, and students have explored both biophysical and socioeconomic angles in addressing the complex issues of food security.

UC Contributions to Food Security Research and Action

UC CalFresh is a nutrition education program funded through the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, the California Department of Social Services, and UC Cooperative Extension.  CalFresh provides assistance to low-income households and can help buy nutritious foods for families and individuals in need.  The UC CalFresh program consists of adult, family-centered, and youth driven educational programs to improve household food access and quality. Federally, the program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides monthly electronic benefits for qualified members to buy food.  

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UC Cooperative Extension works with SNAP to provide additional educational resources for households.

SNAP is the largest program in the country for hunger relief services.  The Food and Nutrition Service department of the US Department of Agriculture works with state agencies and organizations to ensure eligible individuals receive nutrition assistance.  SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, has been promoted in the US since the 1930’s.  In 1961 President Kennedy signed an Executive Order to initiate the food stamp program, and by 1974 programs had expanded to all 50 states.  In 2008 the Food Stamp Program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and remains a critical component to fighting issues of food security across the country.  It was determined that participation in SNAP for 6 months was correlated to a 10% decrease in levels of food insecurity, and SNAP is estimated to assist transitioning more than 5 million Americans out of poverty each year. UC Cooperative Extension works with SNAP to provide additional educational resources for households.  This allows them greater opportunities to emerge from chronic or temporary food insecurity through the federally funded Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).

The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research has been a global leader in conducting research on a variety of national, state, and local health policy issues.  Much of this research is related to health economics, health disparities among different sectors of the population, and chronic disease.  Many of these issues are fundamentally tied to diet and nutrition and related to affordability and access to quality food.  

The Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) is a research-oriented sector of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and focuses on the impact of nutrition and physical activity.  The institute brings together experts who are working towards “a world where healthy food, beverages and opportunities for physical activity are convenient, accessible, affordable and sustainable”.

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Contributors: Leigh Archer, Bev Ransom, Mariah Coley
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How to cite this page
UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. 2017. "Addressing Food Insecurity." What is Sustainable Agriculture? UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. <>

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