FOOD AND NUTRITION SECURITY PRIMER — SECTION FOUR

UNDERSTANDING NUTRITION PROGRAM TERMS

Several US government departments use food and nutrition security terms in their agencies. Many of the food and nutrition security terms defined in this resource are used by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and HHS (United States Department of Health and Human Services). The following information offers insight into why these agencies use certain terms.

last update: 2024-06-19

FEDERALLY-FUNDED NUTRITION PROGRAM TERMS 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA, and especially Food and Nutrition Services, is the agency which administers the largest number of federal food and nutrition programs and serves the largest number of people. Food and nutrition programs in this agency operate as entitlements (type of government spending on programs for people who meet eligibility criteria), such as SNAP and school meals, or with discretionary spending (determined each year through budget acts approved by Congress), such as the WIC Program.

The descriptions USDA uses for its programs almost always use the term low income: low income people, (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]), low income women (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children [WIC]), low income families (Child and Adult Care Food Program [CACFP]), low income areas (Summer Food Service Program [SFSP]), low income seniors (Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program [SFMNP]). The USDA includes the term food security in the mission of Food and Nutrition Services (FNS): “to increase food security and reduce hunger in partnership with cooperating organizations by providing children and people with low income access to food, a healthy diet, and nutrition education in a manner that supports American agriculture and inspires public confidence.”

While the individual programs administered by USDA FNS do not use the terms food insecurity, nutrition security, food and nutrition security in their programming, the USDA FNS is focusing on “ensuring all communities have access to foods that support good health and well-being.”

The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) is USDA’s principal social science research agency with data products that highlight federal food programs and food security status. The most well-known is the annual report, “Food Security in the United States,” which uses and measures the terms food security and degrees of food security: high, marginal, low, and very low food security.

In 2021, USDA began using the term, nutrition security, noting the agency’s commitment by describing actions to address food security and health on their web pages and communications, including in the Secretary of Agriculture’s statements and speeches.

CENSUS BUREAU

During the pandemic years 2020–2023, the U.S. Census Bureau  administered an internet survey, the Household Pulse Survey, with 15 other federal agencies, including the ERS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to respond to unknown and rapidly changing impacts on people brought about by COVID-19. The Household Pulse Survey measured social and economic impacts including food insufficiency and food scarcity as a proxy for food insecurity with the survey respondent focusing on the last seven (7) days as a time frame of reference. 

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement (CPS-FSS) for the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS). The CPS-FSS includes all survey items for the household food security measure and the food insufficiency survey items. There is overlap in household classification. For example, most households classified as food secure are also classified as food sufficient; having low food security also classified as marginal food sufficiency; and having very low food security also classified as low or very low food sufficiency. The CPS-FSS food insufficiency item has the survey respondent focusing on the last 12 months as a time frame.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

The Department of HHS emphasizes actions to build health equity, reduce health disparities, and address the social determinants of health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established an Office of Minority Health and Health Equity (OMHHE) to advance health equity and women’s health issues, with the vision that, “All people have the opportunity to attain the highest level of health possible.”

HHS and the CDC use the term food and nutrition security more often than food insecurity. Reducing food insecurity is described as one economic stability factor of the social determinants of health, along with poverty, housing and employment. Food and nutrition security is part of the framework for the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP) to achieve health equity.

The Department of HHS’s  Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA) Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB) recently introduced the term food sufficiency. MCHB funds the Title V Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Services Block Grant, a federal-state partnership, to support 59 states and jurisdictions to improve the health and well-being of the nation’s mothers, children, including children with special health care needs, and their families.

As of 2025, states will be able to select a new Food Sufficiency National Performance Measure (NPM) should they choose to address food and nutrition security needs through measurable strategies. The goal of the food sufficiency NPM is to increase the percent of children whose households are always able to afford to eat good nutritious foods. The NPM is defined as the percent of children, ages 0 through 11, whose households were food sufficient in the past year.

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