It’s a crisis that goes by many different names…pervasive hunger…food access…food deprivation…and food poverty. Maybe the best way to describe it, however, is food insecurity.

Food insecurity is a term defined by the United States Department of Agriculture that indicates that the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food, is limited or uncertain for a household. The USDA also reports on “very low food security,” which occurs when one or more people in the household were hungry over the course of the year because they couldn’t afford enough food.

Many are starting to talk about food insecurity as a symptom of a wider, systemic problem, however. This is how the Fair Food Network, a U.S.-focused advocacy group dedicated to building a more just and sustainable food system, describes the issue: “We are faced with a broken food system that limits access to healthy, fresh, and sustainably grown food to many low-income families and under-served communities. We also see the brokenness of this system through the prevalence of diet-related illnesses and the steady increase of obesity in these communities, and the number of people who now rely on government food assistance.”

In low-income neighborhoods, which often lack full-service grocery stores or farmers’ markets, residents are limited to shopping in smaller convenience stores where the availability of healthy foods is limited, at best. Studies have shown that even when available, healthy foods are more expensive there, and households with limited food budgets are often forced to purchase cheaper, energy-dense foods in an effort to maximize their calories per dollar. Less-expensive foods not only provide lower nutritional quality but are directly linked to obesity.

These are themes that resonate with members of the many Junior Leagues focused on addressing both childhood obesity and the presence of food deserts in their communities. A useful resource for Leagues and other community groups focused on food insecurity is the Healthy Food Access Portal, funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.

Food insecurity is very much a global problem, and its causes, severity and impact differ widely by geography.

According to the World Food Programme, some 805 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Poor nutrition causes nearly half of deaths of children under 5 – an estimated 3.1 million – and hunger kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

In developing nations, chronic war and civil conflict, a lack of agriculture infrastructure, and unstable markets can occur on top of poverty, access to quality food, and food loss due to waste. In developed countries, food insecurity can be largely invisible to those who do not suffer from it and the problem can be episodic rather than endemic.

Food insecurity in developed countries like the U.S., Canada and the UK is more likely to result less in death than in poor health or stunted life opportunities – but available data show that the problem is in fact widespread. According to Feeding America, 49 million individuals in the U.S are food insecure, including 16 million children. It is estimated that 10.6 million people in the UK live in “absolute poverty,” making it hard for them to afford everyday essentials, including food. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, almost 1.1 million households, or 8.3%, experienced food insecurity there in 2011-2012. Households with children under 6 had the highest rates of food insecurity, at 10.7%.

In Mexico, Freedom from Hunger, an international development nonprofit, cites Ministry of Social Development (SEDESOL) data that 54% of all Mexicans live in poverty, indicating they live on less than US$4 per day. And Mexico’s National Institute for Statistics and Geography reports that over 90,000 Mexicans died from starvation or malnutrition between 2001 and 2011.

However, even moderate levels of food insecurity can have wide-ranging and detrimental consequences on the physical and mental health of both adults and children. Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important in establishing a strong foundation for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. In adults, food insecurity can have wide-ranging detrimental consequences, particularly among more vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and seniors. Long-term lack of access to a nutritious and adequate food supply also has implications for the development of physical and psychological issues as well as social skills.

And, despite efforts by national governments to address the problem, it may be getting worse.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest federal aid nutrition program and provides food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people living in the U.S. The current program was established with the Food Stamp Act of 1964, and it is estimated that 40 million Americans have participated annually in recent years.

Legislative action has caused both expansions and cuts to the program since its inception. In 2009, for example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 raised SNAP benefits to people affected by the recession. However, this was a temporary measure, and the passage of the Agriculture Act of 2014 cuts $8.7 billion in benefits over a decade. It has been estimated by anti-hunger advocates that the bill will harm 850,000 American households, about 1.7 million people spread across 15 states, by cutting on average $90 per month in benefits. The changes to SNAP include tighter eligibility requirements, which in many states correspond directly to eligibility for school lunch and breakfast programs; it has been estimated that the new rules could remove 210,000 children from these programs.

But the news is not all bad – the Act requires SNAP retailers to carry healthier foods, allows SNAP benefits to be used at more types of retailers, expands nutrition education and obesity prevention activities, and creates numerous grants to incentivize expanded access to healthy foods in low-income communities.

The importance of nutritious foods in the fight against food insecurity is a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a federal statute and part of the reauthorization of funding for child nutrition signed into law by President Obama on December 13, 2010. In addition to funding nutrition programs and free lunch programs in schools, the bill set new nutrition standards for schools, and allocated $4.5 billion for their implementation. As a result, improvements have been made to school food to promote better nutrition and reduce obesity. The new nutrition standards have been championed by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move! initiative to end childhood obesity.

Building upon recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, an advocacy group that provides information and advice concerning health and science policy, the changes mandate increased availability to fruit and vegetables and whole grain-rich foods, limiting milk offerings to only low fat or no fat products, tailoring the size of each meal to the age of the children being served in order to ensure proper portion size, and increasing the focus on reducing them amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and sodium.

The Act also strengthened local school wellness policies and now requires more engagement from the local level. It also includes an incentive “6-cent rule” that reimburses schools an additional 6 cents for each lunch they serve that meets the new meal standards.

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administers several programs that provide healthy food to children, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Special Milk Program. Administered by state-level agencies, these programs help fight hunger and obesity by reimbursing schools, child care centers, and after-school programs for providing healthy meals to children.

Current initiatives of the Food and Nutrition Service include Healthier School Day, which includes toolkits for schools with resources to assist schools in meeting the new nutrition standards; Farm to School, providing research, training, and grants to school districts emphasizing locally-sourced foods and educational activities on food, farming and nutrition; HealthierUS School Challenge, a voluntary certification initiative for schools that have created healthier school environments through better nutrition and increased physical activity; and Team Nutrition, which supports all their child nutrition programs through education, training and technical assistance in the areas of food service, nutrition education, and school and community support for health and wellness initiatives. Additionally, Team Nutrition awards Training Grants for Healthy Meals, offering funding to state-level agencies to establish or enhance sustainable infrastructures to improve children’s lifelong eating and physical activity habits.

The School Breakfast Program, begun in 1975, operates under the same guidelines of the National School Lunch Program, but fewer than half of lunch participants eat school breakfasts. Advocacy groups such as the Food Research and Action Council and No Kid Hungry have championed “universal” breakfasts in school for all children, regardless of income. Removing the stigma of participation by low-income children, schools offering free breakfasts for all have seen increased participation rates, better performance on standardized tests, along with decreased absence and tardiness and overall behavior problems.

Provisions within the School Breakfast Program allow schools to simplify the operating of meal programs when they serve meals to all students at no charge. Additionally, schools who serve a large number of students who are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals are able to “break even” when they offer free breakfast to all because of the increased revenue from additional eligible students. At present, several states provide additional funding for expanded breakfast programs; also available are grants from organizations such as the National Dairy Council, Share our Strength, Newman’s Own Foundation and Walmart.

A wide range of U.S.-based nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs are also nonprofit organizations that work outside of government control but often with government funding) are addressing food insecurity in a variety of ways. Organizations focused on the issue both in the U.S. and globally include Action Against Hunger, Stop Hunger Now and Kids Against Hunger. Others focused on fighting hunger in the U.S. alone include Feeding America and No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strength.

In the UK, the past few years have seen a surge in the number of requests to food banks, and a steep increase in the opening of new food banks. In fact, last fall, the Red Cross established a food collection and distribution plan in Britain – the first since World War II.

In a letter to the British Medical Journal in December 2013, a group of doctors and senior academics from the Medical Research Council and two leading universities said that the effect of government policies on vulnerable people’s ability to afford food needed to be “urgently” monitored and that the greater number of people requiring emergency food and a doubling of the number of malnutrition cases seen at English hospitals represented “all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognized until it is too late to take preventative action.”

Britain’s Trussell Trust, which co-ordinates the only nationwide network of food banks in the country, has blamed rising food and fuel prices, static incomes, underemployment and changes to benefits on the increasing numbers being referred to food banks for emergency food. The number of food “parcels” distributed by the Trust in 2013 was 913,138, nearly triple the number from 2012.

Launched in 2010, Foodshare is an innovative, international volunteer-powered charity which connects food growers with local charities in order to reduce the spiraling food bills of charities, provides locally grown, seasonal and fresh produce to those that will benefit the most, and reduces food waste by distributing surplus food to charities instead of landfill or compost heaps. Foodshare’s Growing to Give program is encouraging every school in the UK and around the world to grow fresh produce for donation to a local charity.

Oxfam, the UK-based international relief organization, works with partners across the UK to ensure that people have enough income to feed themselves and their families with dignity. In addition to immediate food access, Oxfam is also focused on campaigning and lobbying the government on issues such as welfare reform and labor rights.

Food Banks Canada, the national charitable organization representing and supporting the food bank community across the country, reports that each month close to 850,000 Canadians are assisted by food banks, and 36.4% of those helped are children and youth. While all provinces maintain a program of welfare assistance by way of a monthly payment to people with little or no income, reliance on food banks (for food and other assistance) has remained steady over the past decade.

The first food bank in Canada opened its doors in 1981. While initially intended as a temporary measure, the need for food banks grew, and today there are more than 800 food banks and 3,000 food programs in Canada. In addition to providing food assistance, many of these offer additional programs such as providing skills training, helping with job and safe-housing search, and providing referrals to other social agencies and support services.

The National Crusade Against Hunger (Cruzada Nacional Contra el Hambre or CNCH) is a program sponsored by the Mexican government that seeks to significantly reduce hunger and poverty for 7.4 million Mexicans in 400 municipalities by focusing on hunger, food production and community involvement. Its objectives are to eliminate hunger in extremely impoverished communities and to eradicate acute malnutrition in children. The program also seeks to cut production losses after harvesting, storage, transportation, distribution, and commercialization as well as to increase food production and the profit of farmers. An important element in achieving these objectives is promoting community participation.

Food insecurity is increasingly a focus issue for many Junior Leagues, under a variety of different names and with projects ranging from community gardens to food pantries.

That focus builds on a long history. For example, shortly after its founding in 1910, the Junior League of Brooklyn successfully petitioned the Board of Education to provide free lunches for the children in Brooklyn schools. It would take more than thirty years for Congress to pass the National School Lunch Act in 1946, which provided low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified students through subsidies to schools.

But the focus on food insecurity has blossomed in recent years with innovative initiatives by a wide range of Junior Leagues. These have ranged from providing at-risk students with food through weekend “backpack programs” to planting and maintaining community gardens, partnering with food banks and in direct distribution of produce to those in need, teaching classes on healthy cooking on a budget, raising awareness of food insecurity through community events, and providing grants to other local organizations seeking to ease hunger.

Among the large number of Junior Leagues with weekend backpack programs providing needy students with weekend nutrition are Leagues in Kansas City, Austin, Lee County, Norman, Portland (ME), Bryan-College Station, Raleigh, Rockford, Wilmington, NC, St. Paul, Lee County, and Texas Junior Leagues Lubbock, Odessa and San Angelo. Over time, many of these programs have expanded to provide nutrition over school breaks and holidays and larger packages to include additional family members.

Like many other Leagues, the Junior League of Charleston supplements and extends what it does in community outreach through backpack programs (offered through the Lowcountry Food Bank) by actively supporting community partners like Fields to Families, I Heart Hungry Kids and East Cooper Meals on Wheels in their food insecurity initiatives.

An important element of many Junior League programs targeting food insecurity are community gardens designed to help build healthy and socially sustainable communities. Among the current garden programs are the Junior League of Ogden’s Oasis Community Garden, the Junior League of Sacramento’s Read & Feed, and gardens served by Leagues in Boca Raton, Asheville and Collin County. Among the Leagues that take their efforts “on the road” with mobile distribution of produce are Ann Arbor, Phoenix and Winter Haven.

With the growing awareness of hunger and its impact, several Junior Leagues have actually taken on food insecurity as a focus area. In an effort to solve the immediate and long-term challenges faced by hungry children in their community, the Junior League of Greater Orlando adopted “Childhood Health, Hunger and Poverty” as its core cause. Programming includes HIP Kids, which stands for Healthy, Informed Playful Kids, and includes education to children on healthy food, habits and lifestyles. The Junior League of Mobile’s impact area for 2014-2019 is “Healthy Children: Hunger, Nutrition and Fitness,” and its work with community partners includes support of food pantries, backpack programs and community gardens. Hunger is one of the current community issues for the Junior League of Boca Raton, whose CHOW (Conquering Hunger Our Way) initiative brings several existing League programs under one umbrella, expands support to community partners, and works to educate the community about the widespread issue of hunger in their backyard. As an incentive to JLBR members, a “Hunger Games” competition was held recently, with members accumulating points for participating in hunger-related DIAD projects. The successful competition resulted in over 540 hours of community service, and a three-night Royal Caribbean cruise for the member accumulating the most points!

In another innovative approach, the Junior League of Bronxville recently held a “Ride for Hunger” to raise both awareness and funds needed for community outreach on food insecurity and promoting proper nutrition.

And finally, the Junior League of Chattanooga brought key elements of the community – including the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Food Coalition, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke – as participants in its SNAP Challenge in 2014. Participants pledged to use the average food stamp benefit – $30.80 a week a person in Tennessee – as their total budget for groceries for the seven days of the challenge.