Food insecurity remains essentially unchanged

Yesterday the USDA Economic Research Service released a report on the prevalence of food insecurity in the U.S.  Over 14% of US households (that's 17.5 million households or 49 million people) remain food insecure, a number that hasn't much budgeted since the recession began in '07-08.

As pointed out in a Wall Street Journal editorial today, the USDA's measure of food insecurity isn't a direct measure of hunger.  Rather, the measure is derived from responses to a set of survey questions.  Respondents are shown 10 questions (18 if they have children), and if they respond "yes" more than three times to questions like, "In the last 12 months, did you or other adults in the household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?" then the household is classified as food insecure.  

Over at the US Food Policy blog, Parke Wilde remarks:

In previous years, the United States solemnly adopted targets for reducing the prevalence of food insecurity from 12% (the level observed in the mid-1990s) to 6%. As my chart (based on USDA data) shows, this effort to improve U.S. food security has failed. Yet, neither Democrats nor Republicans talk much any more about any substantial realistic strategy for poverty reduction — with serious objectives, quantitative targets, and implementation steps. Though food assistance is of course important, poverty reduction is the most promising approach to improving household food security in the United States.

James Bovard in the WSJ notes that the food insecurity results are surprising given the rise in food stamp participation over this period

In 2013 the USDA reported that federal food programs—most notably food stamps provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—“increase food security by providing low-income households access to food, a healthful diet, and nutrition education.” But food insecurity was more widespread in 2013 (14.3%) than in 2007 (11.1%), while food-stamp recipients rose to 47 million from 26 million.

Bovard makes an interesting and relevant observation.  However, I'm not sure that I fully agree with his characterization of the literature on the (lack of) causal relationship between food stamp participation, food insecurity, and hunger.  It could be that we would have had even higher rates of food insecurity had enrollment in food stamps not swelled.  As econ-speak: we didn't observe the counter-factual.  

A few comments I've read point out that food insecurity would likely have been lower in 2013 had we not experienced higher food prices over the last several years (particularly for protein over the past year).  That's almost certainly is true.  Just last year, two USDA-ERS researchers (two of the same people who authored the recent report on food insecurity) published a paper (which I previously discussed here) in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy showing that food stamp participants who live in areas with higher food prices are more likely to be food insecure than food stamp participants who live in areas with lower food prices.  They write:

We find that the average effect of food prices on the probability of food insecurity is positive and significant: a one-standard deviation increase in food prices is associated with increases of 2.7, 2.6, and 3.1 percentage points in household, adult, and child food insecurity, respectively. These marginal effects amount to 5.0%, 5.1%, and 12.4% increases in the prevalence of food insecurity for SNAP households, adults, and children, respectively.

If we want less food insecurity, one way to achieve that outcome is to have lower food prices.  How to we get lower food prices? Rain would help (but not too much rain).  The primary systematic way to achieve long-term reduction in food prices is through scientific development and technological innovation that increases agricultural productivity.