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Gauging Food Security in the US as UN Adopts the SDGs


On Sept. 11, 2015, US Department of Agriculture employees volunteered to glean through surplus vegetables from a Maryland farm to go to federal food banks. LANCE CHEUNG/FDA 

In a first, the Sustainable Development Goals will be applied to rich as well as poorer countries, a fundamental break with the Millennium Development Goals, which were focused on developing nations. By coincidence, the United States Department of Agriculture released its measures of American food security among its low-income population in early September, just before the final adoption of the SGDs at the United Nations later next week. The findings demonstrate both the value of international comparisons and the incongruities that universal measurements will reveal.

The US has been calculating food insecurity since 1995, based mainly on Census Bureau data. In the latest report, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2014,” the survey estimated that 17.4 million households, about 14 percent of all households, reported some measure of food insecurity. Members of low-income households were asked questions such as whether over the past year (2014) they worried that their food would run out before they got money to buy more; whether they could not afford to eat balanced nutritional meals; or whether they had to skip meals because there was not enough money for food. The respondents answered yes in about 98 percent of cases.

The food security report cautions, however: “When households experience very low food security in the United States, the resulting instances of reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns are usually occa­sional or episodic but are not usually chronic.” Nonetheless, households reporting food insecurity at some point or points in 2014 account for just over 48 million people, including more than 900,000 children living in the worst category of “very low” food security.

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Sustainable Development Goal 2 says: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” The goal’s first two targets are: “By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round,” and “By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.”

The US Department of Agriculture report does not track malnutrition or side-effects of undernourishment, so it would not directly meet the reporting requirements of the SDGs, though other departments of the US government as well as academic studies and nongovernment organization surveys could provide additional data. But the new report sheds light on where American problems lie.

It affirms that low-income households led by single women are the most likely to face food insecurity. Households led by single men fare better, as do married couples with children. Black and Hispanic households fared poorly on food security compared with the national average.

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Geography was also a factor: “In addition, the food insecurity rate was highest in rural areas, moderate in large cities, and lowest in suburban and exurban areas around large cities,” the report said. “The prevalence of food insecurity varied considerably from State to State.” It added: “Estimated prevalence of food insecurity in 2012-14 ranged from 8.4 percent in North Dakota to 22.0 percent in Mississippi; estimated prevalence rates of very low food security ranged from 2.9 percent in North Dakota to 8.1 percent in Arkansas.”

The Department of Agriculture report points to the difficulties that will arise in calculating and analyzing data from country to country, where national poverty rates and health measures differ significantly, and governments — not the UN — are now responsible under the SDGs for doing the tracking. Additionally, Goal 2 includes measurements of national agricultural policies, including issues like crop subsidies and export-import regulations. Arriving at a global picture of progress on the goals surrounding food could be little more than a stab in the dark.


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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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