11 October 2023 | Economic Security

What Is Food Insecurity?

Erin Melton | October 11, 2023

More than just hunger, food insecurity captures the economic, social, and psychological causes and consequences of “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Hunger is a physical condition that is often caused by food insecurity, which also causes psychological and emotional distress and economic strain.

What Causes Food Insecurity? 

Feeding America defines “food insecurity” as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” Often, this is caused by common hardships in the daily lives of many families living on low incomes. A single event, like car trouble or missing work due to illness, can throw off a family’s budget and force the impossible choice between groceries and other crucial bills.  

These instances are part of broader, more complex problems contributing to food insecurity: poverty driven by too-low wages that have not kept pace with increasing housing costs and inflation; insufficient affordable housing; lack of access to and affordability of health care; high-cost prescriptions and a lack of health insurance; inadequate transportation; and more.  

In Kansas, the $7.25/hour minimum wage contributes to these causes. A full-time, minimum wage worker has an annual income of around $15,000, which is more than $4,000 below the federal poverty line for a one-parent, one-child household. The minimum wage was last raised in 2009, and its actual value has decreased by almost 30 percent since.   

Kansas is third from the bottom among states and territories where it is hardest for eligible families to access food assistance. 

For Kansas kids, the change back from pandemic-era relief measures that ensured all students would have access to no-cost breakfast and lunch at school will likely increase food insecurity. After two years of not having to worry about applications and keeping lunch funds updated, students’ families again had to begin paying for school meals. For many students, especially those in families struggling to make ends meet, the ability to eat at school is not guaranteed.  

What Does Food Insecurity Mean for the Kansans Facing It? 

Around one in 10 Kansans and one in seven Kansas kids face hunger and food insecurity every day. Food insecurity, whether short- or long-term, negatively impacts children’s behavioral and educational development. It can also impact young people’s physical health, with an association between food insecurity and an increased risk of chronic illness. Food insecurity makes it harder for children to succeed at school, where they should be able to learn, play, and grow alongside their peers.  

Meanwhile, food insecurity for parents means seeing those impacts in their children while dealing with those same physical and psychological manifestations. Families facing food insecurity often must make impossible choices between purchasing groceries and paying rent, utilities, and other bills. There are also tradeoffs with prescriptions and medical care, transportation, school supplies, clothes, and more.  

No parent should have to choose between a life-saving prescription or a meal for their child. These concerns often make it hard for food-insecure Kansans to focus on working or finding higher-paying employment, adding to the cycle of food insecurity.  

What Can We Do? 

Food insecurity in Kansas can be solved. At the legislative level, there are opportunities lawmakers could implement to significantly improve the lives of Kansas families facing food insecurity.  

  • Increase access to family support programs. The Legislature should undo harmful, restrictive policy changes to family support programs, like cash, food, and child care assistance. These programs temporarily increase families’ budgets and decrease the number of tough choices they have to make until they can figure out a long-term financial solution.  
  • Expand Medicaid. Kansas should expand access to health care for the adults who are critical to children’s lives, freeing up more money for food purchases. More indirectly, a healthier workforce means fewer parents missing wages when they are out sick, lowering the likelihood of unexpected financial hits.  
  • Raise wages. If the Kansas minimum wage were raised to be more in line with living expenses, more families would be able to live without parents experiencing the strain of working multiple jobs. Higher wages allow more consistent access to nutrition-dense food at home.  
  • Make school meals accessible for more kids. We can increase food security for all Kansas kids by ensuring they have nutritious breakfast and lunch at school, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. Subsidizing the reduced-price meal category, encouraging and funding more eligible schools to take up the community eligibility program, and funding healthy school meals for all children are all steps toward this goal.  

Enacting these policy choices would mean fewer Kansas families making the tough choices between groceries and medical care, rent and utilities, and being able to get to work. By ensuring every Kansas household has consistent access to enough nutrition to work, play, learn, and grow, we can build a state where every Kansas kid can thrive.  

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