Measuring the Extent and Depth of Food Insecurity: An Application to American Indians in the United States

Year: 2005

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Gundersen, Craig

Institution: Iowa State University

Project Contact:
Craig Gundersen
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University
74 LeBaron Hall
Ames, IA 50011
Phone: 515-294-6319


Within the extensive literature on food insecurity in the United States, little work has been done on (1) the depth and severity of food insecurity (as opposed to just the food insecurity rate) and (2) the food insecurity status of American Indians. This study addresses both of these topics. To measure food insecurity, three axiomatically derived measures of food insecurity are used—the food insecurity rate, the food insecurity gap, and the squared food insecurity gap. As expected, given that economic conditions are worse for American Indians than for the rest of the population, food insecurity levels are generally higher for American Indians than for the rest of the population. However, the magnitude and significance of these differences differ depending on the choice of food insecurity measure. If, instead, only the food insecurity rate had been analyzed, the picture of food insecurity among American Indians compared with the rest of the population would be markedly different. Even after controlling for other factors in multivariate frameworks, the comparisons between American Indians and the rest of the population remain.

The study used data from the 2001, 2002, and 2003 Current Population Survey (CPS), which surveys about 50,000 households monthly and includes the Core Food Security Module (CFSM). Within the CFSM, a household with children responding affirmatively to three or more questions is deemed food insecure, and a household responding affirmatively to eight or more questions is deemed food insecure with hunger. Affirmative responses, then, are designated as a food security index. The CFSM contains 18 questions pertaining to a household’s inability to meet basic food needs due to financial constraints; for households without children, only 10 of the 18 questions are answered. Sample questions include: “Did you or the other adults in your household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food,” or “Did a child in the household ever not eat for a full day because you couldn’t afford enough food.”

Methodology included conversion of the CFSM affirmative responses to a relevant value—that is, the food insecurity indicator. The Rasch scoring method was used, which assumes that the probability of a household answering a question positively or negatively follows a logistic distribution. Using a maximum likelihood estimation based on the overall response pattern of households to all questions, the Rasch score for each was derived.

The study found that across all three measures for the all-income sample (food insecurity rate, food insecurity gap, and squared food insecurity gap), food insecurity is higher among American Indians with children than among the rest of the population with children and the differences are statistically significant. For the low-income sample, the difference between American Indians and the rest of the population is significant for the food insecurity rate but not for the other two measures. For households without children in the all-income and low-income samples, American Indians have higher food insecurity rates than do the rest of the population. In contrast to the food insecurity results, the study found no statistical distinction between food insecurity with hunger between American Indians and the rest of the population among households with children. In both the all-income and low-income samples of households without children, American Indians have higher food insecurity with hunger than do the rest of the population across all three measures.

In general, American Indians have higher levels of food insecurity than do the rest of the population, but this conclusion depends on the choice of measure and choice of sample. The magnitude of the differences depends on the choice of measure. These differences carry over to multivariate considerations of differences between American Indians and the rest of the population. Along with negative consequences from limited economic opportunities, including high rates of obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and low breastfeeding rates, the study concludes that American Indians also face higher levels of food insecurity, and these levels are especially prominent in households without children.

The study suggests that further research is needed. Many other groups, such as single parents with children, have higher than average food insecurity rates, and a richer theoretical framework might be used with this population. This study’s analysis used the CPS, but a wide array of other data sets exist that have the CFSM, and this study’s theoretical framework could be used with those as well. Also, numerous other income poverty measures may be valid to employ as food insecurity measures. Finally, the study recommends that on-reservation versus off-reservation residence may make a difference in food insecurity. CPS does not track residence because of confidentiality, so other available data sets, in conjunction with CPS, may allow for answers to this issue.