The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Long-Term Patterns of Food Insecurity in the US: Is Food Insecurity Persistent or Transient?

Thursday, January 17, 2013: 2:30 PM
Seabreeze 1 and 2 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Jeong-Hee Ryu, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI

Food insecurity has increasingly been recognized as a prominent social problem and an important public policy concern in the US. In recent years, the incidence of food insecurity has increased strikingly with the onset of the economic recession. In 2010, 14.5 percent of U.S. households experienced food insecurity and the prevalence was higher (20.2 percent) for households with children. Food insecurity is not a static condition and annual prevalence rates do not represent the extent to which food hardships are a transient versus persistent phenomenon. Due to limited data available, little research has examined food insecurity experience in childhood. By adopting a longitudinal perspective on food insecurity, the study explores the long term patterns of food insecurity over nine-year period, using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K) of 1998-1999. Specifically, this study addresses whether: (1) food insecurity is persistent or transient and (2) food insecurity patterns differ by the severity levels of food insecurity.


Data are obtained from four waves (kindergarten, third, fifth, and eighth grade) of the ECLS-K. A sample of 7,326 children are analyzed for the study. Food insecurity is measured using the 18-item standard U.S. Food Security Survey Module. To characterize the persistence of food hardship, children were classified according to the number of years of household food insecurity, ranging from 0 to 4, for each of the three measures-- marginal food security/ food insecurity, food insecurity, and very low food security. Two main analyses are conducted to depict dynamics of food insecurity: First, using the number of episodes of food insecurity, the study compares food insecurity prevalence rates between single-year and multiple-year estimates. Second, I follow a cohort with information on a specific food security status in kindergarten and calculate how many children remain in the subsequent interview years.


Results indicate that food insecurity is transient than persistent over multiple years. Analysis of food insecurity patterns using the number of episodes of food insecurity presents experiences of food insecurity in any observation year were more than twice single year estimates at all levels of severity. The transition analysis shows that of children who were food insecure in kindergarten, only 10 percent remained food insecure through eighth grade. By contrast, among children who are food secure in kindergarten, 92% remained food secure across all of the four years. Also, the results indicate volatility is higher for more severe food insecurity, suggesting that more severe food insecurity is more transient and less persistent than less severe food insecurity.


The results of the study are broadly consistent with limited previous research showing high volatility of food insecurity. The findings suggest that single-year estimates substantially underestimate the share of children whose households experienced food hardships at some point during their childhood years. The findings imply that living in a household that experiences food insecurity is surprisingly common, thus, further research of food insecurity dynamics is needed to design policy interventions aimed at improving well-being of food insecure children and families.