The Implications of Marginal Food Security


November 16, 2016

If you work in the anti-poverty field, it is likely that you’ve heard of food security and food insecurity, but hidden between the two categories is another subcategory: marginal food security.
What makes a household marginally food secure? According to the USDA, a household is marginally food secure if there are “one or two reported indications — typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house but little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.” Families in this category worry that their food will run out before they are able to afford more.

According to a new report by Children’s Health Watch, marginal food security – also known as hidden food stress – puts children and families at risk for health and development issues similar to those faced by food insecure families. Children who suffer from marginal food security are 56 percent more likely to be in fair or poor health, 60 percent more likely to be at risk for development problems, and more likely to have lower test scores than children in food-secure homes. Mothers who suffer from marginal food security are three times more likely to have depressive symptoms. Despite these statistics, households that suffer from marginal food security are hidden because they are pushed into the “food secure” category in national datasets.

hidden-food-stress marginal food security

Marginal food security among households with children is a real problem. The Children’s Health Watch report establishes that, “From 2007 to 2015, hidden food stress remained a significant problem, fluctuating between 1 in 6 and 1 in 7 households with young children.”

So what can we do to eliminate marginal food security? The first step is to acknowledge that it exists. The second step is to gain an understanding of how we can improve the economic stability and reduce food insecurity among households. According to the Children’s Health Watch report, the following policies should be implemented if we want to eliminate marginal food security:

  1. Report nationally on marginal food security rates, collected by the USDA, instead of categorizing marginally food secure households as food secure.
  2. Increase the minimum wage, strengthen job placement programs, and ensure that families have access to adequate financial resources – food, childcare and housing – so that they don’t have to make trade-offs between basic needs.
  3. Subsidize healthful food and make programs that improve access to fresh, healthy, affordable food – such as food trusts and healthy food prescription programs – easily available.
  4. Increase SNAP benefits to reflect the real cost of a healthy diet.

The Coalition on Human Needs suggests similar steps in our recent reports on the on the high cost of being poor in the United States. Based on these reports, it is clear that households that suffer from poverty pay a higher percentage of their income for basic needs. Therefore, expanding polices that we know are successful in improving economic security is critical if we want to reduce poverty and expand opportunity.

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child poverty
Food and Nutrition
marginal food security
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