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Developing New Measures to Assess Factors Associated with Food Insecurity in the U.S.

Nifa Author
Matt Browning, Public Affairs Specialist

Tackling food and nutrition insecurity is one of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s top priorities. Developing and validating tools to measure the emerging concept of nutrition security will help accelerate USDA’s progress.

The Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition (GSCN), a nonprofit research and evaluation institute in Omaha, Nebraska, has a cooperative agreement with USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), currently serving as the National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program. In addition to its work on GusNIP, GSCN  is conducting a Walmart Foundation-funded project to develop new measures to assess nutrition security, household resilience and the three pillars of food security that are not currently emphasized in standard measures.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) found that, in 2020, 89.5% of U.S. households had consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living – and were therefore designated food secure – while the remaining 10.5% (13.8 million households) were food insecure. Such households were found to have difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources. While the ERS survey tool emphasizes factors such as healthfulness and acceptability of available foods, as opposed to focusing solely on quantity in ensuring food security, food security measurements to date have focused on accessibility – only one of the four pillars of food security. The other three are availability, utilization and stability. Other measurement gaps include assessing nutrition security and perception of choice over one’s dietary characteristics, and upstream factors that make a household resilient to become food insecure. To address these gaps, GSCN developed and tested new self-administered measures.  

To develop initial drafts of the new measures, GSCN reviewed the literature, worked with an expert advisory group, and conducted formative and cognitive interviews. Then, the measures were piloted with nearly 1,000 households across five states and tested to finalize the measures. Participants included low-income and racially/ethnically diverse households. Survey respondents ranged from 18 to 86 years old, and 71% were food insecure. The measures have also been translated into Spanish and will be translated into other languages. The measures and supporting materials will be made freely and publicly available on the GSCN website once materials are finalized.

Nine new measures were created that fall within three domains:

  • Household Resilience – Measure of the factors that make a household resilient to household-level financial shocks (e.g., job loss, medical debt).
  • Perceived Availability, Utilization, Stability – Measures of the household level perceptions of the other three pillars of food security.
  • Nutrition Security – Measures of the household's ability to acquire foods that are good for their health and well-being.

During construct validation, the nine new measures were assessed for their association with diet, health and financial variables. Households that scored higher on the new measures generally scored significantly higher for variables that assessed healthful dietary behaviors (e.g., consuming fruits and vegetables more frequently), scored higher on financial stability indicators, and reported higher general health and fewer reported chronic conditions.

Dr. Eric Calloway serves as the senior research scientist for the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition. Image proved by Dr. Calloway.
Dr. Eric Calloway serves as the senior research scientist Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition. Image provided by Dr. Calloway. 

The results indicate that the new measures are useful in assessing nutrition-related health risks among food insecure populations. The measures can also be useful for needs assessments, evaluation, screening and research, as well as public health surveillance.

Dr. Eric Calloway, who led the study for GSCN, will discuss the development process, findings from the testing and potential applications during the August edition of the NIFA Nutrition Security Webinar Series, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, at 1 p.m. EDT. Register for the webinar here.

Top photo: A smiling woman cropping the fruit for a fresh fruit salad. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock. 

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