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What Is Hunger and Why Is It a Significant Problem?

In 2014, 6.9 million households, or 5.6% of households in America, had at least one member experience hunger at some time in the past year.

Households reporting hunger (i.e., very low food security) in 2014 experienced it for an average of about seven months of the year. During the Great Recession, the percent of households that experienced hunger increased from 4.1% in 2007 to 5.4% in 2010. The rate has remained at that level even as the economic recovery enters its sixth year. In addition, too many people who could work remain out of the labor market—labor force participation by working age adults has been declining since its peak in 2000.

Hunger has far-reaching consequences, not just on individuals, but also on the U.S. health care system, our educational system, and the economy: hunger contributes to nutritional deficits that can undermine people’s health, diminish human capital, and impede children’s development. These negative effects can translate into greater health care expenditures, reduced worker productivity, and greater rates of worker absenteeism.

Decades of medical, economic, social science, and educational research have shown that hunger affects people of all ages in the United States. Impairment of childhood health and development arising from hunger may result in poor health and poor academic achievement, generating potentially preventable costs for the health care and education systems. Adolescents in families reporting hunger experience more problems with mental health and thoughts of suicide. Adults that report hunger also report poorer physical and mental health and higher rates of being overweight or diabetic, and other related problems. Among seniors, hunger can lead to depression and reduced capacity to perform activities of daily living.

Given these serious consequences for individuals and for the productivity and success of our country, it is urgent that we do everything in our power to reduce and ultimately eliminate hunger.