Local-Level Predictors of Household Food Insecurity

Year: 2005

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Bartfeld, Judi, and Lingling Wang

Institution: University of Wisconsin, Madison

Project Contact:
Judi Bartfeld
Department of Consumer Science
School of Human Ecology
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Madison, WI 53706
Phone: 608-262-4765


Household food security—the assured access of all people to enough food for a healthy and active life—has received considerable attention from policymakers and researchers over the past decade. The prevalence of food insecurity varies substantially across States, with most of this variability accounted for by differences in the demographic composition of States as well as differences in their economic and policy contexts. Although research has made considerable headway in understanding cross-State food security patterns, there is little empirical evidence about how food security varies within States or about the factors that may contribute to such variation.

This analysis uses new data from the Wisconsin Schools Food Security Survey, a self-administered survey designed to measure food security among households with elementary school children. The report provides findings from a study that examined the relationship between both household and contextual characteristics and food security among households with elementary school children in Wisconsin. Food security is measured with the standard six-item version of the food security scale. Data were collected in several waves beginning in spring 2003, with the final year of data collected as part of the current project. A variety of contextual variables at the school, Zip Code, and county levels were appended to the data.

This study conceptualizes food insecurity not merely as an indicator of economic hardship but rather as the result of a more complex interplay among personal resources, public resources, and the economic and social contexts in which a household resides. The report focuses on several components of the food security infrastructure, including housing, transportation, food outlets, nutrition assistance programs, and local labor markets. Key findings include the following:

  • The demographic factors that predict food insecurity—including low income, renting versus owning a home, larger household size, less than college education, and no employed people in the household—are consistent with established findings, providing evidence of the validity of the self-administered scale as a measure of the underlying food security construct.
  • Housing costs play a significant role in contributing to food insecurity. Results imply that each $100 increase in median rent is associated with a 13-percent increase in the odds of food insecurity.
  • Access to transportation—including both private vehicles and public transportation—significantly reduces the risk of food insecurity.
  • Households with greater proximity to grocery stores or supermarkets have less risk of food insecurity. Results indicate that each additional mile from a supermarket or grocery store increases the odds of food insecurity by 2 percent.
  • Local labor markets also play a role. The odds of food insecurity increase by an estimated 4 percent for each percentage-point increase in the county unemployment rate.
  • Households in urban areas have significantly greater risk of food insecurity.
  • No specific evidence was found that more widely available nutrition assistance programs—including the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, and the Food Stamp Program—have measurable impacts on food security, though the study emphasizes the difficulty in adequately controlling for the role of self-selection.

An important implication of this research is that even communities that have not collected local food security data can make informed assessments of whether they are at higher or lower risk, based on local demographics and local characteristics. Furthermore, the overall finding—that an array of local attributes, which are at least partially subject to local influence, plays a role in food security—implies that communities interested in promoting food security have a variety of avenues worth pursuing. Strategies implied by this research include efforts to promote affordable housing, to increase access to public and private transportation, and to increase the availability of grocery stores and supermarkets. Important future directions include efforts to understand the roots of the rural-urban food security differential and efforts to identify the role of participation in nutrition assistance programs while accounting for the bias introduced by self-selection.