Washington State Nutrition & Physical Activity Plan
Nutrition Objective 2

Reduce food insecurity in Washington

Food security means having enough food at all times to meet basic needs for an active healthy life. To be food-secure, a family or individual needs to be able to get acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.(1) Food insecurity occurs when families cannot afford to buy healthy foods. Efforts to improve hunger and food insecurity in Washington over the past few years have had positive effects. Washington went from eighth hungriest state in the nation in 1996-1998 to 25th in 2004-2006. (2) Food insecurity declined almost 3 percent from an average of 13 percent in 1996-1998 to an average of 10 percent in 2004-2006. Even so, more than 257,000 households in our state are food insecure. Whenever families are uncertain about their ability to obtain enough healthy food, they experience food insecurity.

Families and Individuals

To be food secure, families and individuals need:(1,3)

  • Enough money to buy healthy foods.
  • Protection from unaffordable health care costs.
  • Affordable housing that includes facilities for storing and preparing foods.
  • Transportation to stores that sell moderately priced healthy foods.
  • Reliable access to socially acceptable food assistance programs as a safety net against hunger.
  • Institutional and personal social systems to support families faced with unanticipated barriers to buy enough healthy food.

Compared to children from families who are food secure, children from families with food insecurity are more likely to have behavior problems, do poorly in school, need medical care and hospitalization, and to develop chronic diseases.(4,5) Pregnant women who do not have enough to eat during pregnancy are more likely to deliver low birth weight babies. For older adults, food insecurity can make chronic disease harder to control and speed the onset of health problems that are common with aging.(6)

Food insecurity may also be associated with poor quality diet and obesity.(7) When money and resources for food are stretched, low-income families and individuals may purchase cheap foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories. Obesity may also be a response to uncertain supplies of food. When money or resources are available for food, family members may overeat to compensate for times when they didn’t have any food.(8)

These consequences of food insecurity are expensive. In 2007, it was estimated that food insecurity in the United States cost households, communities, businesses and government a total of $90 billion per year.(9)

Strategies for Success

Cultural Competence

In communities where families speak languages other than English, eligible households may not participate in food assistance programs because of lack of knowledge about the program, administrative burden and fear that receiving benefits may affect immigration status.

A broad-based partnership in Washington including the Children’s Alliance, the Economic Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, Washington State University Area Health Education Center, VOICES, WithinReach, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Medina Foundation is working to overcome barriers to participation in food assistance programs. Community change is built on information from program participants or individuals who have applied and are not currently receiving assistance. Local leadership teams comprised of Community Service Office staff, advocates, community-based agencies and Basic Food Program Outreach contractors use this information to develop collaborative strategies that are specific to each site. The initiative links policy change, outreach strategies and changes to local office operations.


National Anti-Hunger Organizations, a group of 13 associations, developed A Blueprint to End Hunger (10) that recommends:

  • Expanded outreach especially to underserved populations, such a working-poor households, children and the elderly. 
  • Investments in public education to increase awareness of the importance of preventing hunger and improving nutrition for health, learning and productivity.
  • Communicating about food insecurity.
  • Children, pregnant women and seniors are especially vulnerable to food insecurity, and the consequences are long-lasting and expensive.
  • Working families find themselves without enough food for a number of reasons, many times the situation is beyond their control.
  • Food insecurity rates can be improved; states that have strong social and medical support systems have lower rates of food insecurity.