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Food Security

Food Insecurity Rates GraphFood security is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as meaning “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” In 2012, 85.5 percent of households in the United States were food secure. The remaining households—an estimated 14.5 percent (17.6 million)—were classified as food insecure, meaning that residents of those households had difficulty providing enough food at some time during the year for all their members due to a lack of resources. An estimated 5.7 percent of U.S. households (7 million) had “very low food security,” a more severe level of food insecurity in which the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources. Food Insecurity Rate MapAccording to the USDA, the prevalence of food insecurity has been essentially unchanged in the United States since 2008. At the national scale, rates of food insecurity are substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or single men, and Black and Hispanic households.

The estimated 2012 food-insecurity rate for North Carolina is higher than the national average, at 18.6 percent of North Carolina residents—or around 1.8 million people—living in households with food insecurity.

The estimated food-insecurity rate in 2012 for the 27 counties of Western North Carolina was lower than the North Carolina rate, averaging 16.3 percent (or around 220,000 people living in households classified as food insecure). Food Insecurity Rate for Children Under 18 MapCleveland, Rutherford, and Watauga counties had the highest rate of food insecurity, each with 19 percent of their respective populations living in households classified as food insecure, followed by Graham County (18.3 percent) and Swain County (18.1 percent). The counties with the lowest food-insecurity rates were Henderson (13 percent), Polk (14.2 percent), and Haywood (14.3 percent).

The largely rural nature of our region and its mountainous terrain play a role in food insecurity. Food insecurity is popularly believed to be a problem of large cities, but on a national scale food insecurity is more common in large cities and in rural areas than in suburban areas and exurban areas around large cities. The WNC region contains many rural communities and few major metropolitan centers, and includes areas isolated from much of the rest of the southeast due to the prevalence of mountainous terrain, thus making food insecurity a rural issue in most of the region.

Food insecurity is strongly associated with income levels—households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line have food insecurity rates substantially higher than the national average. The federal poverty line varies from year to year, but in 2012 the weighted average threshold was $23,492 for a four-person household. This association can be clearly seen when comparing regional food insecurity with poverty levels—the counties with higher rates of food insecurity strongly correlate with those having higher levels of their populations living in poverty, while those with lower food insecurity rates have lower poverty rates (see Economic | Income | Poverty).

Child food-insecurity rates are higher than overall food-insecurity rates, and food-insecurity rates among households with children are substantially higher than those found in the general population. According to the USDA, children were food insecure in 10 percent of U.S. households with children in 2012, meaning that around 3.9 million households were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children. Children are usually shielded from the disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake characterizing very low food security. At the national scale in 2012, both children and adults experienced instances of very low food security in 1.2 percent of households with children (around 463,000 households).

The estimated child food-insecurity rate in the 27 counties of Western North Carolina in 2012 was 28.1 percent, higher than the estimated North Carolina child food-insecurity rate of 26.7 percent. With the exception of Swain County, the counties in the region with the highest estimated child food-insecurity rates differ from those with the highest overall regional food-insecurity rates. The regional counties with the highest estimated rates of food-insecure children were Swain (33.1 percent), Alleghany and Clay (both with 31.8 percent), and Yancey (31.7 percent).

The Appalachian Foodshed Project has assembled county profiles containing data relevant to community food security for each county in its region. To generate county food security profiles for the WNC counties that are a part of that region, please visit the Appalachian Foodshed Project County Profiles webpage.  Click here to download the Western North Carolina Community Food Security Assessment (pdf, 22.7 MB).


Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Mark Nord, and Anita Singh. Household Food Security in the United States in 2012, ERR-155, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2013.

Gundersen, Craig, Emily Engelhard, Amy Satoh, and Elaine Waxman. Map the Meal Gap 2014: Food Insecurity and Child Food Insecurity Estimates at the County Level, Feeding America, 2014.