The USDA estimates, published in a series of annual reports, are widely used by government agencies, the media, and advocacy groups to report the extent of food insecurity and hunger in the United States, to monitor progress toward national objectives, to evaluate the impact of particular public policies and programs, as a standard by which the performance of USDA programs is measured, and as a basis for a diverse body of research relating to food assistance programs. Government agencies have also adopted the estimates as targets for performance assessment. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has included the food security measure to assess the performance of its Healthy People 2010 initiative. The Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA is using the measure as a target for its strategic plan to fulfill requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (Wilde, 2004a).
Despite the extensive use of the measure, some major questions related to the concepts themselves, the methodology, and their use, continue to be raised.
While the USDA annual reports define the concepts of food security and the three categories of food security that are estimated and reported (food secure, food insecure without hunger, and food insecure with hunger) and provide detail about how they are measured, the terms “food security” and “food insecurity” are relatively new to both policy makers and the public and are sometimes confusing. While the term “hunger” is not new, measurement of hunger and how hunger conceptually fits into food insecurity is not completely clear. As currently construed in USDA’s food security measure, hunger is considered a severe level of food insecurity. This use of the term “hunger” has been questioned by some who believe that hunger is conceptually separate from food insecurity. Because the label “hunger” is a politically potent concept, the methods used to classify households as food insecure with hunger are particularly important.
Methodological and technical issues about the measure of food insecurity generally concern the clarity, appropriateness, and design of the CPS survey questions. Critics question:
using a relatively long (12-month) reference period,