Food Security

Spotlight on Key Indicators: Food Security

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Food Security
Family Income and Poverty
Housing Affordability
Why This Topic Is Important
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as not having consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living (1). According to 2012 estimates, 10% of households with children in the U.S., about 3.9 million households, were food insecure (1). Free or reduced price school meal (FRPM) and Food Stamp programs, among others, provide a safety net to help ensure that low-income children get adequate nutrition (2). These programs help to address food insecurity among low-income children (3), and are related to improvements in students’ physical health (including obesity), behavior, school performance, and cognitive development (4, 5).

Student eligibility for FRPM serves as a proxy measure of family poverty, as the federal poverty threshold tends to underestimate the extent of poverty, particularly in high cost areas. Research indicates that families in California can earn two or more times the federal poverty level and still struggle to meet their basic needs (6). Income eligibility for FRPM programs goes up to 185% of federal poverty (about $43,000 for a family of four in 2012-2013).

For more information on Free/Reduced Price School Meals, please see’s Research & Links section. Also see’s other topics related to family economics.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Coleman-Jensen, A., et al. (2013). Household food security in the United States in 2012. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Accessed at:

2.  Wight, V. R., et al. (2010). Who are America’s poor children? Examining food insecurity among children in the United States. New York, New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. Retrieved from:

3.  Fiese, B. H., et al. (2011). Household food insecurity: Serious concerns for child development. Society for Research in Child Development, 25(3), 3-19. Retrieved from:  

4.  Gundersen, C., et al. (2012). The impact of the National School Lunch Program on child health: A nonparametric bounds analysis. Journal of Econometrics, 166(1), 79-91. Retrieved from: 

5.  Food Research & Action Center. (2010). Child nutrition fact sheet: National School Lunch Program. Retrieved from:

6.  As cited on, California family economic Self-Sufficiency Standard. Insight Center for Community Economic Development and Dr. Diana Pearce, Center for Women's Welfare, School of Social Work, University of Washington. Retrieved from:

How Children Are Faring
Nearly 60% of all public school students in California are eligible for free or reduced price school meals (meaning their household incomes are less than about $43,000 for a family of four), according to 2013 data. This equates to just over 3.5 million low-income students statewide, an increase from about 3.2 million (51%) in 2007. County and school district data show increases, as well; between 2007 and 2013, percentages rose in almost all counties and in about 80% of school districts with available data. At the county level, the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced price meals ranged from 27% to 79% in 2013. Many more students are eligible for free meals than for reduced price meals. In 2013, almost 3 million students (50% of all students) were eligible for free meals, while just over 500,000 (9%) were eligible for reduced price meals.

In 2011, almost 2.5 million California children (more than 27% of the child population) lived in "food insecure" households with uncertain or inadequate access to food. Almost 30% of parents in California reported that their child received Food Stamp benefits in 2011-12.
Policy Implications
Food and nutrition assistance programs have the potential to increase food security and provide low-income children with nutritious and affordable meals. However, these programs are not used by many children who are eligible (1). In California public schools, for example, school breakfast programs do not reach 70% of the state’s 3.4 million low-income students (2). Several challenges hinder enrollment and participation, including paperwork issues and stigma (3). In addition, high levels of salt, fat, and sugar in school lunches have contributed to the nationwide childhood obesity epidemic (4).

According to research and subject experts, policy-related actions that could improve nutrition assistance participation, and the quality of the meals themselves, include:
  • Utilizing authority under state law and the federal Child Nutrition Act to make it simpler and less stigmatizing for students to access free and reduced-price school meals, while streamlining administration at the school level; this includes “direct certification,” which allows school districts to automatically qualify children in families receiving CalWORKS or food stamps for free school meals (5, 6)
  • Adopting school district-wide use of effective service models such as Classroom Breakfast, Second Chance Breakfast, and Grab n’ Go (different approaches to serving breakfast during the school day, in class, or outside of traditional settings) to increase participation and decrease stigma associated with subsidized breakfast (6, 7)
  • Ensuring the availability of nutritious, appealing foods at school meals without competition from less healthful foods, thereby supporting healthy dietary habits (8)
  • Making healthful snacks available and affordable in schools, which can lead to students’ increased consumption of fruits and vegetables (9)
For more policy recommendations and research on this topic, see the's Research & Links section or visit California Food Policy Advocates, the Food Research & Action Center, and Action for Healthy Kids. Also see Policy Implications on under Family Income & Poverty, and Nutrition/Breakfast.

Sources for this narrative: 

1.  Fiese, B. H., et al. (2011). Household food insecurity: Serious concerns for child development. Society for Research in Child Development, 25(3), 3-19. Retrieved from:  

2.  California Food Policy Advocates. (2012). School meals analysis 2010-11. Retrieved from:

3.  BreakfastFirst. (2010). Research and resources. Retrieved from:

4. Millimet, D., et al. (2009). School nutrition programs and the incidence of childhood obesity. Journal of Human Resources. 45(3). 640-54. Retrieved from:

5.  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2009). Direct certification in the national school lunch program: State implementation progress. Report to congress. Retrieved from: 

6.  111th Congress. (2010). 
Healthy, hunger-free kids act of 2010. Retrieved from:

7.  Shimada, T. (2009). Evaluating school breakfast and implementing second chance breakfast: Newark Unified School District. California Food Policy Advocates. Retrieved from:

8.  Crawford, P., et al. (2011). The ethical basis for promoting nutritional health in public schools in the United States. Preventing Chronic Disease 8(5). 98. Retrieved from:

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2013). Smart snacks in school. Retrieved from:

Websites with Related Information
Key Reports
County/Regional Reports
More Data Sources For Food Security