Rates of child experience of and exposure to food insecurity remain high

Senior volunteer serving healthy meal to family at soup kitchen

As memories of holiday meals linger and negotiations over the Farm Bill reach their end, we draw attention to the millions of children in the U.S. who are exposed to food insecurity. 

 Despite improvements across a number of economic indicators like GDP growth and unemployment rates, rates of child experience of and exposure to food insecurity have failed to see reductions in the past three years. In 2017, 17.0 percent of children in the United States—totaling 12.5 million children—experienced food insecurity. This means that they lived in a household that at some point during the year did not have consistent access to adequate food due to a lack of money or other resources. 


In every state there are children living in food-insecure households, though the rates differ dramatically across states. Figure 1 shows the average annual percentage of children living in food-insecure households for each state in 2015-17. (Data are averaged across 3 years to increase statistical precision). From 2015-17, every state had a rate of child exposure to food insecurity above 10 percent. In 11 states, more than 20 percent of children lived in a food insecure household. In two states – Arkansas and New Mexico – more than 1 in 4 children was exposed to food insecurity.  

 map of percent of children living in food-insecure households by state  

In 2017, nationwide 4.1 percent of households with children experienced very low food security, meaning that at times the food intake of household members was reduced or eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked resources for obtaining food. Figure 2 shows the average annual percentage of children living in households with very low food security by state in 2015-17. From 2015-17, about half of states had rates of very low food security above 5 percent. In four states –Tennessee, Nebraska, Maine, and New Mexico – more than 8 percent of children lived in households characterized by very low food security. 

map of percentage of children living in households with very low food security by state

In new interactive maps created by The Hamilton Project, we show how the picture of child exposure to food insecurity and very low food security has changed from 2005-2007 (pre-recession) to today. Perhaps surprisingly, and unlike other indicators including The Hamilton Project’s Vitality Index, there is not a consistent regional picture to food insecurity at any point in the business cycle.  

 There are several ways that children experience food insecurity. In some households with children, only adults in the household are food insecure. A child may also experience low or very low food security herself. Figure 1 shows the percentage of children who exposed to or themselves experienced low or very low food security. These lines are exclusive, meaning that a child is either experiencing very low food security or low food security or lives in a household characterized by food insecurity; the lime green line shows total experience of or exposure to food insecurity. In 2009, 12.1 percent of children experienced food insecurity and an additional 11.1 percent were exposed to food insecurity. In 2017, 8.9 percent of children experienced food insecurity and 8.1 percent were exposed to food insecurity. 

map of child exposure to food insecurity

Food insecurity among children peaked in 2008 when 10.8 percent of children experienced low food security and 1.5 percent of children experienced very low food security, 12.3 percent in total. From 2008 to 2014, the share of children experiencing food insecurity decreased from 12.3 percent to 10.8 percent. From 2014 to 2015, there was a sharp decrease in the share of children who were food insecure themselves to 8.7 percent. Since that drop, the number of children experiencing food insecurity ticked up slightly in 2016 (8.8 percent) and 2017 (8.9 percent) but was not statistically significantly different.

While seasonal food drives help to put a holiday meal on the table across the country, too many children are exposed to food insecurity, even now, in better economic times. Proposals to add work requirements to SNAP participants with children at home and failing to provide additional resources to households with children over the summer to make up for the loss of school-provided meals would increase food insecurity among children.