The Realities of Living with Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is not an abstract: Our friends, neighbors, and communities are struggling to thrive.

The Realities of Living with Food Insecurity
15 mins read

Long-held myths and misconceptions impede paths to food security.

As a writer committed to uncovering the nuanced realities behind public health issues, I find that the human experience of food insecurity in the United States is often overshadowed by misinformed stereotypes and overlooked in broader policy discussions. In this article, I delve into the personal testimonies that shed light on the daily realities faced by millions. By challenging prevailing myths and bringing the voices of those affected to the forefront, I aim to foster a deeper understanding of what food insecurity really looks like and emphasize the urgent need for systemic solutions. Join me in rethinking our approach to food assistance through the lens of those who live this struggle every day.

Food insecurity is a vast issue in the United States. According to the USDA, approximately 17 million Americans, or 12.8% of households, experienced low or very low food security in 2022.1 But despite the temporary spotlight given to this pervasive issue during the height of the pandemic, there continue to be misconceptions regarding food insecurity, specifically who is impacted by it and why it occurs.

Perspectives of Food Insecurity in the United States

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the perception of food insecurity in the United States was varied and narrowly focused on people applying for food benefits. Media coverage often included messages related to the fraudulent use of government benefits and a call for more stringent regulation of federal food assistance programs. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, welfare fraud became a hot topic that was closely followed by significant budget cutbacks for the Food Stamp program. As a result of such influences, it was relatively common for people to assume that food insecurity was a problem mainly experienced by those who chose not to help themselves: People who sought “handouts” rather than employment to supplement their income.

In 2020, however, the threat of food insecurity was brought to the forefront as media constantly broadcasted long lines in food pantries across the nation. A majority of news outlets also focused on record rates of job loss — a major contributor to food insecurity — and forewent the alleged abuse of government assistance programs to create calls to action, using a systemic lens to improve the accessibility of food assistance programs. This change in narrative emphasized the government’s responsibility to uphold food and nutritional security for all Americans, championing policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels.

And the government responded. Congress approved short-term increases in food assistance measures, such as the temporary 15% increase in SNAP benefits.

Alongside government reform, U.S. media representations of food insecurity during the pandemic demonstrated the pervasiveness of need as well as the breadth of challenges encountered by many when applying for and receiving food assistance. It became clear that food insecurity was not a matter of anonymized (yet highly individualized) personal responsibility; food insecurity meant that our friends and neighbors — our community itself — were struggling to thrive.

Yet, despite the pandemic’s role in increasing knowledge about the prevalence of food insecurity, misconceptions still remain and impede progress towards attaining food security for all. The sense of community that coincided with the rise in need during the pandemic shed light on the realities of food insecurity. Today, we can continue to humanize the experience and evoke empathy for our fellow neighbors by sharing and learning from personal experiences. These stories will continue to dispel misconceptions and drive the narrative for addressing food insecurity.

The Realities of Food Insecurity

At U.S. Hunger, we strive to gain a better understanding of food insecurity and its root causes by listening to personal anecdotes and stories from the very individuals who find themselves without enough food. We have developed a discrete, online platform, Full Cart, on which individuals can request food assistance in a dignified manner, sharing their stories and personal circumstances from the comfort of their own homes.2 Using this community-centered approach, we have come to learn more about food insecurity and the broader systemic problems it signals.3 By sharing their stories, individuals can debunk common myths while also informing solutions to the upstream factors that lead to food insecurity.

Myth 1: Americans who seek food assistance don’t want to work. They prefer a handout.

This first myth relates to the previously stated misconception that people who seek food assistance choose not to help themselves (i.e., if they just worked harder, they would be fine). This misconception relies on the fiction that food insecurity is a matter of personal irresponsibility, not systemic issues.

Yet, the demographics of the individuals who use our Full Cart platform reveal a different story.4 In 2023, a majority of our applicants were white (60%), female (84%), and insured (80%). Nearly one-third (29%) had pursued higher education after high school graduation with 11% holding an associate’s degree or higher. More than half of our applicants (58%) lived in the low-income tract, yet we received more than 700 applications from families who reported a household income of $75,000 or greater. Despite frequent reports of gainful employment, an overwhelming majority (97%) of applicants answered that it is somewhat hard or very hard to afford the basics — food, housing, medical care, and heating.

One Full Cart applicant recounted the following: “My wife and I may not be typical in-need family. We are both employed full-time and homeowners…. I am trying to be astute with my home and money management, so I am reaching out for resources. It is hard to maneuver with my three children, so this virtual resource is timely and imperative for me.”

As this personal testimony makes clear, even working-class Americans are struggling with food security. They are finding it difficult to make the limited resources they have stretch to cover their basic needs. Thus, they are left with no other choice than to seek out additional support.

Myth 2: Everyone can easily access assistance programs (so no one should go hungry).

The reality is that government assistance and charitable programs are neither dependable nor guaranteed. A majority of Full Cart applicants (68%) state that they are enrolled in at least one federal government assistance program, but such programs are consistently underfunded or at risk of losing funding. And Americans often encounter difficulties when applying for government benefits, such as the lengthy application process and stringent thresholds that do not appear to take into account current economic conditions.

Many applicants note the difficulty (even the impossibility) of obtaining government benefits: “The rising cost of everything makes it difficult to buy an adequate amount of food. Each week I have to decide if I’m going to pay bills or put food on the table. I’ve been denied for food stamps several times claiming my income is ‘too high.’ Even for one month, I would like for my growing children to be able to eat proper meals daily.” Think of the frustration of applying for programs like SNAP and WIC, over and over, with nothing to show for it. Consider the wasted time and sense of helplessness that accompanies each rejection.

So where do people who aren’t quite food insecure enough for government assistance go? Well, food pantries seem like an obvious relief option. Unfortunately, most food pantries have hours of operation that are inconvenient for working families: Either they are erratic, dependent on donations and volunteer hours, or they operate during normal business hours when most people have to work. On the other hand, some families may not even have access to transportation or live nearby a food pantry.

One of our Full Cart applicants identified with these issues of access: “We both work over 50 hours a week and even with that, we cannot afford current grocery prices. We were attending a local food pantry but with work schedule changes, neither of us can make it to the pantry for assistance while they are open. We have been struggling to find a solution because Monday-Friday, when most places provide assistance, we are working.”

Myth 3: Food security is just about food access and hunger.

Food security is about more than hunger and the availability of food. Those who experience food insecurity find themselves making impossible choices. For example, to cope with limited resources, our Full Cart applicants frequently report trade-off behaviors, like skipping meals or medication, to provide food for their children. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of our families report having difficulty stretching the food they have for their household on a daily or weekly basis. They stretch their budgets to cover essentials like rent and utilities until food remains the only thing left to cut. And when an unexpected expense comes up, they may have to cut back even more.

Individuals may find that an unanticipated crisis has left them in a tough situation where they have to sacrifice food on the table in order to afford emergency costs. For example: “Gosh. In the last few months, it seems that every possible extra expense has fallen on top of us. From storm damage to car parts and then after-school activities for the kids, I’ve caught myself consistently falling short with the extra money for groceries. I’m usually very prideful and don’t like to ask anyone for help, but I’m running thin.” The precarity of the current U.S. economic system means that most people do not have the money for unanticipated situations. In fact, 61% of Americans have less than $5,000 in their checking account, a figure which is especially concerning considering the average American household spends more than $6,000 per month.

And in addition to unanticipated expenses that further stretch resources, many families also grapple with decisions related to housing and the management of chronic illnesses. Approximately half of Full Cart applicants reported that they either did not have a steady place to live or were worried they would lose housing in the near future. Additionally, 56% reported managing at least one chronic illness.

Such circumstances are stressful and often lead to feelings of hopelessness, especially when options are limited. “As a disabled veteran with a family, on a fixed income, the fast-rising cost of inflation is squeezing us out of the groceries we used to be able to afford. This is the first time in a very long time I have had to ask for help. It’s getting to feel like when we were homeless.” While access to and affordability of food is an issue, there are barriers beyond food access — like inflation — that prevent a family from being food secure. This means that any relief provided by the government and charitable organizations is only effective if they truly understand the conditions of food insecurity as well as the contributing factors that lead people to seek food assistance in the first place. As a nation, we must begin with learning the who and why of food insecurity before we can truly begin to solve it.

Many of our national efforts to promote food security are largely focused on providing relief by increasing the availability of free food. Though necessary, such efforts admittedly only address the symptoms of food insecurity. We must go a step further to eliminate the causes of food insecurity.

Systemic Issues Require Systemic Solutions

To effectively combat food insecurity, a community-led health equity strategy focused on eliminating barriers and addressing upstream contributors is key. This strategy should be inclusive of the five social determinants of health: Economic stability, education quality/access, socio-community context, health care quality/access, and the built environment. These factors not only influence health outcomes but also affect an individual’s overall well-being — their ability to grow, work, and thrive within their environment.

As illustrated by the firsthand accounts above, food may be the first resource families choose to sacrifice when managing their household to identify which physiological and safety needs are most important. Of course, food insecurity is not the full story — though it might be felt the most immediately. As a result, we must advocate for the equitable distribution of resources so that all families have the ability to lead healthy lives without having to make sacrifices.

Most importantly, any health equity strategy must be community-centered and led by the very individuals affected by food insecurity. U.S. Hunger has gained valuable insight into this problem by collecting firsthand accounts from those facing food insecurity; however, these Full Cart testimonials represent a very small portion of the 17 million food-insecure U.S. households. Those who are food insecure must be able to use their experiences to guide the most impactful solutions to this pervasive issue. As such, government officials and charitable organizations need to listen first, learn second, and finally act accordingly.


  1. Low food security is defined as “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” without changes to food intake. Very low food insecurity occurs when there is reduced food intake leading to reports of hunger. ↩︎
  2. In 2023, the organization received over 72,000 applications for temporary food assistance across all 50 states. With an average household size of 3.5 people, these requests represent approximately 252,000 unique lives. ↩︎
  3. Check out this article for more on how to use feedback to create community-centered services! ↩︎
  4. I do not intend to suggest that these represented demographics can be extrapolated to those who face food insecurity throughout the nation at large. As always, the question of access remains. ↩︎

About the Author

Author Photo: Corissa Raymond
Data & Research Writer at 

Corissa Raymond is the Data & Research Writer for U.S. Hunger, a nonprofit organization focused on feeding people today and uniting them to a healthier tomorrow. Using her background in Public Health, she seeks to shed light on the underlying conditions that lead to food insecurity. She uses personal stories of food insecurity to guide her research and delve further into the issue.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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