Food Security

Spotlight on Key Indicators: Food Security

Learn More About Food Security

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 2014 estimates, children were food insecure at some time during the year in 9.4% of American households with children. This translates to an estimated 3.7 million households that were unable to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children nationwide (1). Free or reduced price school meal (FRPM) and Food Stamp programs (e.g., CalFresh), among others, provide a safety net to help ensure that low-income children get adequate nutrition (1). These programs address food insecurity among low-income children and are related to improvements in students’ physical health (including obesity), behavior, school performance, and cognitive development (2, 3, 4).

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 (5). Income eligibility for FRPM programs goes up to 185% of federal poverty (about $44,000 for a family of four in 2014-2015).
For more information on Food Security, 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. (2015). Household food security in the United States in 2014 (Economic Research Report No. 194). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved from:

2.  Food Research and Action Center. (2013). SNAP and public health: The role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in improving the health and well-being of Americans. Retrieved from:

3.  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:

4.  Food Research and Action Center. (n.d.). National School Lunch Program fact sheet. Retrieved from:

5.  As cited on, Self-Sufficiency Standard. (2015). Insight Center for Community Economic Development and Dr. Diana Pearce, California Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard. Center for Women's Welfare, School of Social Work, University of Washington.
How Children Are Faring
Nearly 59% of all public school students in California are eligible for free or reduced price school meals (meaning their household incomes are less than about $44,000 for a family of four), according to 2015 data. This equates to 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 2015, percentages rose in all but one county and in most school districts with available data. At the county level, the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced price meals ranged from 26% to 80% in 2015. Many more students are eligible for free meals than for reduced price meals. In 2015, over 3 million California students (50% of all students) were eligible for free meals, while over 500,000 (9%) were eligible for reduced price meals.

In 2015, almost 4.5 million Californians participated in the CalFresh supplemental food program, formerly known as Food Stamps. Hispanic/Latino and white households represented the majority of CalFresh participants in 2015, accounting for 75% of the approximately 2.1 million participating households.

In 2014 an estimate of almost 2.1 million California children (23% of the child population) lived in “food insecure” households with uncertain or inadequate access to food, down from nearly 2.5 million (27% of the child population) in 2011.
Policy Implications
Food and nutrition assistance programs have the potential to increase food security and provide low-income children with nutritious and affordable meals (1). However, these programs are not used by many children who are eligible. For example, in California public schools, 30% of the state’s 3.5 million low-income students miss out on free or reduced price school lunch, and 65% miss out on school breakfast (2).

According to research and subject experts, policy and program 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 support efforts 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 whose families participate in CalWORKS or CalFresh for free school meals (3, 4)
  • 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 (4)
  • Ensuring the availability of nutritious, appealing foods at school meals without competition from less healthful foods, thereby supporting healthy dietary habits (5)
  • Making healthful snacks available and affordable in schools, which can lead to students’ increased consumption of fruits and vegetables (6)
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 and Poverty, and Nutrition.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Food Research and Action Center. (2013). SNAP and public health: The role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in improving the health and well-being of Americans. Retrieved from:

2.  California Food Policy Advocates. (2015). School meal access and participation: California statewide summary 2013-14. Retrieved from:

3.  Moore, Q., et al. (2013). Direct certification in the National School Lunch Program: State implementation progress, school year 2012-2013 (Report No. CN-13-DC). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Policy Support. Retrieved from:

4.  Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, S. 3307, 111th Cong. (2010). Retrieved from:

5.  Crawford, P. B., et al. (2011). The ethical basis for promoting nutritional health in public schools in the United States. Preventing Chronic Disease, 8(5), A98. Retrieved from:

6.  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