The terms nutrition security, food security, and hunger are often used interchangeably in food policy discourse and debate. While the strategies to address each of these issues are intertwined, there are important differences that should be noted and understood by educators, policymakers, community leaders, and other stakeholders.

The Tisch Food Center engages in research and advocacy initiatives that strive to improve food and nutrition security for all with a focus on underserved communities. This blog is the first in a series that will examine nutrition security in greater depth to add clarity and context to ongoing food access and quality conversations.

What is food security?

Food security is one of the most commonly used terms in food policy and advocacy. According to the USDA, food security occurs for a household when “all members, at all times, can access enough food for an active, healthy life.”

Food security focuses on whether households can reliably access enough food for all members of the household. Furthermore, food security exists on a sliding scale where families may experience high food security to very low food security. 

  • High food security and marginal food security are terms used to describe food security. 
  • In contrast, low food security and very low food security are terms used to describe food insecurity. 

Current rates of food security

In 2020, 10.5% of U.S. households- or over 13 million households- were considered food insecure. Moreover, families considered to be food secure may still be using food pantries, SNAP, and other food assistance resources- the 89.5% of families reported to be food secure in 2020 includes households that use a range of alternatives to access food. It is also important to note that families may fluctuate in and out of the four types of food security over time, especially with rising food prices, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and changes in federal food assistance support.

What is hunger?

We should take a closer look at the term hunger in the context of this discussion about food and nutrition security. Hunger has been used to describe very low food security status but in 2006, the USDA shifted their definition. Hunger is now used to describe the individual-level physiological condition (uneasy or painful sensation) that may be the result of food insecurity.

Food and nutrition security focus on social and economic factors related to food access or quality while hunger emphasizes the more immediate physical state of needing nourishment. The USDA uses several national surveys that estimate levels of food security but there is no measurement for hunger. 

What is nutrition security?

While food security is about access to a certain quantity of food, nutrition security considers food quality. The USDA defines nutrition security as “all Americans have consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, affordable foods essential to optimal health and well-being.” Nutrition security looks at the nutritional value, affordability, accessibility, and safety of foods that promote well-being. Nutrition security also incorporates a focus on equity in all of these areas.

The United States Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, visited Teachers College, Columbia University to discuss the USDA’s efforts to prioritize nutrition security. Secretary Vilsack emphasized increasing nutrition security through an equity lens. In 2020, the USDA estimated that Black and Latinx households experienced food insecurity at 3 times and 2 times the rates of white households, respectively. These disparities in healthy food access then translate into greater risk of diet-related diseases. To learn more about what the USDA is doing to address equitable nutrition security, check out their fact sheet.

What are the origins of nutrition security?

The National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 propelled a multi-year project between the USDA and other national organizations to develop a reliable and accurate way to measure food security. Since 1995 food security has been a supplemental part of the U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey. 

While the food security survey provides important information about the health of our communities and their needs, it does not create a complete picture about the nutritional quality of food, ability to access healthy food, or food safety. 

Nutrition security was added to definitions and conversations of food security in the 1990s. Current policies use the term “food and nutrition security (FNS)” to encompass both aspects of dietary well-being. 

Currently the USDA is building upon what we have learned about food security in the US over the last 20 years to integrate a greater focus on nutrition security. The USDA has outlined four ways they are addressing nutrition security:

  1. Adjusting SNAP Benefits
  2. Updating School Nutrition Standards
  3. Revising the WIC Food Packages
  4. Promoting Nutrition Education

Why do we need to go beyond food security and hunger?

Food security focuses on quantity of food which is important but limited in scope. It is essential to talk about nutrition security now as preventable diet-related diseases are on the rise. Diabetes and obesity rates continue to rise, especially among children. According to the USDA, “600,000 Americans die each year due to diet-related diseases.” Many of these diseases are preventable with greater access to nourishing foods, nutrition education, and affordability. 

The Healthy Eating Index is a measure from the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion that was designed to give an estimate of how well Americans’ diets meet the recommendations of Dietary Guidelines. Data from 2015 indicates that Americans' average score is 58 out of 100 points. Many Americans- particularly from ages 9-30 years old- are not consuming enough nutrient dense foods and too many ultra-processed foods.

What are the determinants of food and nutrition security?

Many families’ ability to access nutritious food is hindered by certain determinants of food and nutrition security.  Most recent research focuses on determinants of food security instead of nutrition security so it is challenging to study nutrition security without including food security in the conversation. 

The following are some of the most significant factors that influence food or nutrition security:

  • Income - In 2020, “28.6 percent of low-income households were food insecure”.
  • Race & ethnicity - “Black households experience food insecurity at more than triple the rate of white households.”
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Disability
  • Transportation 
  • Proximity to grocery stores
  • Time

Moving forward

Expanding food policy discourse to include nutrition security is critical due to high rates of diet-related diseases, food insecurity, and food systems inequality. Upcoming Tisch Food Center blog posts in this series will focus on how to measure nutrition security, nutrition security and health equity, and policy approaches to addressing nutrition security.