Hunger In Michigan


1 in 8 Americans don’t have enough food to eat.

In 2015, almost 1.5 million people in Michigan were food insecure.

Thousands of Michiganders in counties across the state don’t know where they will get their next meal.

The problem only appears to be getting worse.



During the Great Recession (December 2007 – June 2009) rates of food insecurity increased dramatically across the country with prevalence rates peaking at 14.7% nationally. These rates typically hover between 10-11%. In most states, these elevated rates of food insecurity have yet to return to pre-recession levels. Only eleven states have recently seen their prevalence rates decline by a statistically significant percentage from 2010-12 to 2013-15; very low food security has declined significantly in only five states.

This unfortunately has not been the case in Michigan post-recession, where food insecurity continues to increase 

Percent of food insecure* households in Michigan

*Food insecure households include those with low food security and very low food security.

Percent of very low food secure households in Michigan


Chart Source: Calculated by USDA, Economic Research Service, using Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement data. For interactive USDA Charts comparing state food insecurity rates — click “Trends over time”: link here

Both food insecurity and very low food security rates have continued to increase in Michigan since the Great Recession, with prevalence rates of household food insecurity at 14.88% in 2013-2015 (up from 10.12% in 2001-2003) and very low food security at 6.41% (up from 3.42% in 2001-2003).

Why do food insecurity rates continue to increase in Michigan? And what can we do about it?

To begin to answer these questions, let’s first take a step back and look at some definitions, as well as national trends. 

Jump to:   Definitions  |  Food Insecurity — National Context  |  Factors Influencing Food Insecurity  |  Seeking Solutions to End Food Insecurity



The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization defines food security as: “A situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”  The absence of food security implies a state of food insecurity.

The USDA established its definition of food security in 1990 and began developing a survey to measure food security that was finalized in 1995. In that survey (with data collected yearly across the US since 1995) people respond to a series of questions about conditions and behaviors that characterize households when they are having difficulty meeting basic food needs, which helps us to further define food insecurity:

–   Households classified as having low food security have reported multiple indications of food access problems and reduced diet quality, but typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake;

–   Households classified as having very low food security have reported multiple indications of reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns due to inadequate resources for food. In most, but not all households with very low food security, the survey respondent reported that he or she was hungry at some time during the year but did not eat because there was not enough money for food.

While hunger is considered a condition suffered by an individual due to undernourishment, the concept of food insecurity reflects broader social and economic systems, as well as the physical conditions, that lead to individuals, households, and communities struggling to access food. 


Food Insecurity — National Context

In 2016, 12.3% of US households— 15.6 million households or roughly 42 million people —were food insecure, including 13 million children. That is 1 in 8 Americans. Across the country, food insecurity disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. Rates of food insecurity are substantially higher than the national average among: 

–   Households with children (16.5%)

–   Black (22.5%) and Latino/a (18.5%) households;

–   Households with children headed by single women (31.6%) or single men (21.7%); 

–   Households with annual incomes below the official poverty line (38.3%) [i]

Prevalence of food insecurity by selected household characteristics, 2016

Economic Conditions Impact Hunger

Recognize how economic fluctuations affect the levels of food insecurity that individuals and families experience is important. When poverty increases (as it does during periods of economic decline, known as recessions – see the blue bars in the chart below), the more help people need to purchase groceries. This is important because when unemployment increases, consumption can decline (as people have less money to spend). That is why we see food stamp participation rates mirror poverty rates: As people’s income decreases, the loss of that income can be partially made up by using food stamps.



As the economy declines, unemployment rises >>










As unemployment rises, so do the number of people participating in SNAP >>


More recently however, researchers noticed that during the post-recession period (highlighted in yellow below) when job numbers improved, food insecurity did not. Despite the highest monthly unemployment rate dropping from 10% in 2009-10 to 8.3% in 2012, there was no improvement in the level of food insecurity. The national prevalence of food insecurity in 2012 (14.5%) was essentially the same as it was in 2009-10 (14.6%).

So why didn’t food insecurity decrease as more people got jobs? Researchers found that higher general inflation, combined with higher relative food prices, offset any gain in food security from lower unemployment in 2012, and that helped to explain why the food insecurity rate did not decrease. With living expenses rising, families had less money to spend on food, and higher food prices meant food budgets didn’t stretch as far [ii].

Multiple studies have shown how families must grapple with difficult decisions as the cost of basic needs rise:

Feeding America conducted a survey of its clients in 2014 and found that within the past year, a majority of client households reported having to choose between paying for food or paying for medical care (65.9%), paying for food or paying their utility bill (69.3%), paying for food or paying for housing (57.1%), and paying for food or paying for transportation (66.5%).

– Research by the Brookings Institute found that low-income households today spend a higher portion of their budgets on basic needs—housing, food, transportation, health care, and clothing—than they did three decades ago. Because a majority of low income households’ spending (82%) goes to covering these basic necessities, increased costs in one category can easily strain families who typically have limited savings and have little discretionary money to use to maintain expenditures on other basic needs.

– In Michigan, between 2007-2015, the cost of housing, healthcare, transportation and food all increased. A study by the United Way found that 40% of Michigan’s population cannot afford basic necessities.

These findings demonstrate that we must think much more broadly about the intersecting struggles people face, in order to truly ensure that everyone is food secure.

Broader Influences on Food Insecurity

We can garner more insight about food insecurity when we look across the country. As we can see in the maps below, different states have different levels of food insecurity. Researchers have examined numerous factors to try and explain why the variations exist. For example, Tapogna et al (2004) found that the different prevalence rates of food insecurity between states were related to poverty levels, housing-cost burden, residential mobility, and the proportion of households with children within each state [iii].

Household food insecurity by state, 2014-16

Child food insecurity in the US, 2014

Further analysis by Bartfield and colleagues (2006) found that several state-level characteristics were related to an increased likelihood that a household would be food insecure. These state-level characteristics included:

(1)  Low average wages
(2)  High cost of rental housing
(3)  High unemployment rate
(4)  High rate of residential instability
(5)  Low participation in the SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program)
(6)  High tax burden on low-income households.

When researchers considered both the state-level indicators above, as well as household characteristics, they found that household and state-level characteristics combined accounted for 86% of the state-to-state variation in rates of food insecurity between 1998-2001 [iv].

What do the numbers look like in Michigan?

(1) Average Wages: While Michigan’s job market has improved since 2012, low-wage jobs still dominate the economic landscape. In Michigan, 62% of jobs pay less than $20 per hour, with 69% of those paying less than $15 per hour. A full-time job that pays $15 per hour grosses $30,000 per year, which is well below a survival budget of $56,064 for a family of four [v].

(2) Cost of Rental Housing:  Rent in Michigan averaged $844 in 2017, making it the 29th most expensive in the nation. The average hourly wage of renters in the state is $13.70, which is lower than the $16.24 per hour they’d have to earn to afford a market rate unit. There are also not enough available rental units to meet current needs without people being housing burdened (spending more than one-third of income on housing) [vi, v].

(3)  Unemployment rate: In July 2017, Michigan’s unemployment rate was 3.7%, the state’s lowest since 2000. Unfortunately when we consider the labor force participation rate, we see that a lower percentage of the population was working or looking for work. Additionally, of the nearly half-million workers Michigan lost between 2000 and 2012, Michigan’s 2016 workforce was still 326,000 workers short of what it was in 2000 [vii]. Finally, racial disparities persist in the unemployment rate in the state: during the fourth quarter of 2017, the African American unemployment rate was highest in Michigan (10.8%); Michigan also had one of the highest Black–white unemployment rate ratios in the fourth quarter of 2017- where Black unemployment was 3.0 times the white rate [viii].

(4)  Residential instability: Most poor renting families today experience extreme rent burdens, having to devote over half of their income to housing costs, and eviction has become commonplace in low-income communities [ix]. The affordable housing crisis is a major source of residential instability. In Michigan, there is a shortfall in the number of affordable rental units needed to meet the demand of renters [v]. Additionally, communities across Michigan were destabilized by the foreclosure crisis, where in 2015 Michigan had the second highest rate of foreclosures in the country (behind Florida). Housing instability can also severely affect a child’s wellbeing. Michigan has one of the largest populations of homeless students in the country– in school year 2015-16, Michigan ranked 6th among states for the most homeless students, with 94% of school districts reporting students struggling with homelessness and housing instability [x]. 

(5)  SNAP participation: Approximately 85% of eligible workers participated in SNAP in 2015 [xi]. Between Nov 2012 and Nov 2017, there was a 26.4% decline in the number of SNAP participants in the state of Michigan [xii]. While SNAP caseloads decline, they remain above pre-recession levels because food insecurity, poverty and SNAP participation rates also remain above pre-recession levels. Additionally, these declines in Michigan have also been attributed to the re-introduction of asset tests in 2012—known to discourage families from building the savings that would decrease their likelihood of cycling on and off SNAP [xiii, xiv], as well as improvements in the unemployment rate.

(6)  Tax burden on low-income households: Under the Michigan Constitution, the individual income tax is a flat tax rate. Michigan is only one of eight states in the country that still relies on a flat income tax structure, meaning that low- and middle-income taxpayers pay a greater share of their incomes in taxes than the wealthiest taxpayers (a 2011 analysis showed the lowest 20% income group paid 9.1% of income in state and local taxes, while the top 1% income group paid only 5.6%) [xv]. Additionally, while Michigan previously had a 20% Earned Income Tax Credit that helped make the flat tax structure more equitable, in 2011 Michigan legislators reduced the EITC by 70% further burdening low income families [xvi].


Seeking Solutions to End Food Insecurity

Livable wages, affordable rent, stable employment, easily accessible SNAP programs, and equitable tax policy — these aren’t the typical solutions offered when we think about how to eliminate food insecurity. Yet the research above helps us see why they are important policies to consider.

Finally, given our research project’s environmental justice lens, and recognition of the influence of these state-level factors on rates of food insecurity, we must also recognize the way power operates within the social and political systems that shape these policy decisions and who is at the policy-making table, rather than just focusing on the presence or absence of food near a hungry individual.


We hope this introduction to food insecurity in Michigan and some of the research surrounding factors affecting rates of food insecurity at the household and state-level have shed light on the ways in which food insecurity is embedded within a larger web of challenges.

Explore our other research pages on key people within the Michigan food system, Michigan agriculture & small farms, and food retailers in Michigan for further insight into other parts of the food system that affect food access and food insecurity.


[i] Coleman-Jensen A, Rabbitt MP, Gregory CA, & Singh A (2017) Household Food Security in the United States in 2016, USDA-ERS. Link:

[ii] Nord M, Coleman-Jensen A, & Gregory C (2014) Prevalence of U.S. Food Insecurity Is Related to Changes in Unemployment, Inflation, and the Price of Food, ERR-167, USDA-ERS. Link:

[iii] Tapogna J, Suter A, Nord M & Leachman M (2004)  Explaining Variations in State Hunger Rates, Family Economics and Nutrition Review 16(2). Link:

[iv] Bartfeld J, Dunifon R, Nord M & Carlson S (2006) What Factors Account for State-to-State Differences in Food Security? Economic Information Bulletin No. 20. USDA-ERS. Link:

[v] United Ways of Michigan (2017)  ALICE: Asset limited, income constrained, employed: study of financial hardship. Link:

[vi] National Low Income Housing Coalition (2017) Out of reach 2017: The high cost of housing.  Link:

[vii] Ruark P (2017, Sept 7) Unemployment rate masks the real story of lost workers. Michigan League for Public Policy Link:

[viii] Jones J (2018, Feb 20) African American and Hispanic unemployment rates are higher than white unemployment rates in every state at the end of 2017. Economic Policy Institute. Link:

[ix] Desmond & Kimbro (2015) Eviction’s Fallout: Housing, Hardship, and Health. Social Forces, 00(00) 1–30. Link:

[x] Erb-Downward & Evangelist (2018) A snapshot of homelessness and housing instability in Michigan schools. NPC Policy Briefs. Link:

[xi] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2018, March 14) Michigan Food Assistance Program Factsheet. Link:

[xii] Food Research & Action Center (2018, Feb 6) Five-Year Change in Persons Participating in SNAP by State, November 2012 – November 2017. Link:

[xiii] Wild VB (2018 Jan) Budget briefing HHS – Human Services. Michigan House Fiscal Agency. Link:

[xiv] Ratcliffe et al (2016 July) The unintended consequences of SNAP asset limits. Urban Institute. Link:

[xv] Bump J (2012) Tax changes hit low income families the hardest. Michigan League for Human Services. Link:

[xvi] Crouse V (2018, May 15) The looming danger of tax cut triggers in Michigan. Michigan League for Public Policy. Link:


Explore more interactive data visualizations about food insecurity by the USDA here: