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What Is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is when a household does not have access to nutritious food that meets their dietary preferences or needs. The USDA defines food insecurity as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways."

Poverty can cause food insecurity, but food insecurity can also cause poverty. A person that is food insecure has less energy for education and work, which can lead to financial instability, housing instability, health issues, and more.

Food insecurity can be temporary or long-lasting.

Food insecurity can be the result of a temporary financial issue, or the result of long-lasting poverty. Individuals and families living in poverty sometimes get trapped in a cycle of food insecurity.

Food insecurity is dangerous.

Food insecurity has a huge impact on a person's physical health. It can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.

Food insecurity also impacts a person's mental health. Adults who are hungry have a hard time focusing at work, which can deepen the poverty that caused their hunger. Hungry children often struggle in school and don't develop properly, which can lead to a lifetime of poor outcomes.

Who Is Affected by Food Insecurity?

Insights from the Seattle & King County Public Health data below: 

  • Black and Hispanic/Latinx households are twice as likely to experience food insecurity (26.6-32.4% between 2018-2020) than white households.
  • Southeast Seattle households have high rates food insecurity (the average rate between 2018-2020 was 26.5%).

How Can We Measure Food Insecurity?

The number of families using government food assistance programs can be a useful measurement of food insecurity. These programs have been shown to reduce food insecurity and poverty, but they are not long term solutions for hunger. Also, the people who apply are still vulnerable to discrimination.

Government assistance is not a perfect measure of food insecurity. Some people who are eligible for assistance programs don't use them. This may be due to:

  • Barriers to completing the application
  • Embarrassment at using government assistance
  • Immigration status
  • Proof of income requirements that are difficult to meet

Data from food banks can measure food insecurity or food needs in regional communities, by tracking:

  • The number of food bank visits or meal site visits
  • The number of meals served
  • The number of individuals served

Food bank data can be difficult to collect. Many people who use food banks don't visit consistently because they have unstable housing situations.

A more direct way to measure food insecurity is through surveys that ask questions like, "Do you have enough money to get food?" or "Is the food you buy enough for your family?". For example, local surveys tell us that Black and Hispanic/Latinx households are two times more likely than white households to experience food insecurity in King County.

Local studies can also help to identify the neighborhoods with the highest food insecurity. Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment is using the Racial and Social Equity Composite Index, among other criteria, to help determine which areas need resources.

By tracking food deserts, we can track which neighborhoods don't have access to grocery stores and markets, putting families in the neighborhoods at high risk of food insecurity. 

Seattle's Equitable Development Monitoring Program found that 60% of housing units in the Racial and Social Equity Composite Index are within a half mile of a grocery store. However, some neighborhoods lack a healthy grocery store within a half mile, including areas in the West Seattle, the Duwamish Valley, and parts of Rainier Beach in South Seattle.

Food deserts are an imperfect way to measure food insecurity. Some activists now use the term "food apartheid" in place of "food desert", to acknowledge the role that systemic racism has in creating a lack of access to healthy food. 

Stories from the Community

Hunger and Poverty During COVID-19

Northwest Harvest and United Way of King County explain how the pandemic has impacted hunger and poverty, and provide resources for food support in the area.

BLOOM (Build Leadership Organizing & Orchard Management)


Seattle Parks and Seattle Public Library partnered to create BLOOM, a fellowship for young adults to imagine solutions to food insecurity.

What Are Some Root Causes of Food Insecurity?

Structural racism makes BIPOC more vulnerable to food insecurity. Because of racism, BIPOC have higher rates of poverty, unstable housing, and barriers to assistance, which can make it hard to access healthy food.

Who Is Taking Action?

Explore the City of Seattle's Actions Towards Racial Equity

See who to contact, what we'll deliver, and how we plan on meeting our desired outcomes.