Despite the extensive use of the measure over the years, some major questions continue to be raised related to the concepts, methods, and questionnaire items used by USDA for measuring food insecurity and hunger in the annual surveys.
While the USDA annual reports define the concepts of food insecurity and the three categories of food insecurity that are estimated and reported (i.e., food secure, food insecure without hunger, and food insecure with hunger), providing detail about how they are measured, the terms “food security” and “food insecurity” are relatively new to both policy makers and the public, and they are sometimes confusing. While the term “hunger” is not new, measurement of hunger and how hunger fits conceptually into food insecurity is not completely clear. As currently construed in USDA’s food insecurity measure, hunger could be considered a severe level of food insecurity. This use of the term “hunger” has been questioned by some who believe that hunger is conceptually distinct from food insecurity. Because the label “hunger” is a politically potent concept, the methods used to classify households as food insecure with hunger and the use of these estimates are particularly important.
Methodological and technical issues about the measure of food insecurity generally concern the appropriateness of the statistical model used in developing the food insecurity scale and the clarity and design of the CPS survey questions. Also of concern is the relatively long reference period, mixing questions focused on households with those on individuals, and using the same module to assess food insecurity among subgroups, such as households with and without children and the elderly population.
Questions about the appropriate uses of the estimates of food insecurity have also been raised. The media, advocacy groups, and others often interpret the prevalence estimates in language inconsistent with USDA usage. The primary use of the Food Security Supplement is to estimate the prevalence of food security and its severity levels. USDA has explicitly stated (Nord, Andrews, and Carlson, 2005a, p. 10) that:
technically the Food Security Supplement data do not support estimates of the number of people that experience hunger. USDA’s food security reports, based on the FSS, do not provide, nor claim to provide, statistics on the prevalence of hunger among individuals. The survey, and USDA’s reports based on it, provide upper and lower bound estimates of the number of adults and number of children who were hungry at times during the year. They also provide information that sheds light on the prevalence of hunger—by describing the experiential-behavioral context in which hunger occurs. (In early years of the Food Security Measurement Project, USDA analysts sometimes used wording such as “the prevalence of hunger” as shorthand for ‘the prevalence of food insecurity with hunger’ in official reports and research articles. In more recent years disciplined attention has