The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 42 million people, including 13 million children, in the United States were food insecure in 2015. While food insecurity rates have been declining since 2009, the last year of the Great Recession, food insecurity and poverty still remain higher than before the recession began in 2007.
For the seventh year, the nonprofit organization Feeding America has conducted its Map the Meal Gap study to analyze how the need for charitable and federal nutrition assistance varies among communities across the country. The study addressed a few main questions: how many people, including children, are food insecure in every county and congressional district in the country? How many are likely to qualify for federal nutrition assistance programs based on their incomes, how much money they report needing to buy just enough food, and how food prices vary from county to county?
One of the main takeaways from this year’s study is that, since 2008, that meal gap—meaning the meals missing from the homes of those struggling to put food on the table—has gone up by 13 percent.
Feeding America’s Ross Fraser explains that one of the challenges the organization has faced in the last few years is the assumption that their job is easier now that the economy has improved.
“Things are still really though,” he says. “I think any food banks that you would talk to would say demand right now is as high as it’s ever been. So there has been no decline. While fewer people are food insecure, for the people who are food insecure times have gotten tougher.”
Map the Meal Gap consists of an interactive map, providing the data on: the estimated percentage of the population and number of individuals who are food insecure in every U.S. state, county, and congressional district; the service area of each Feeding America food bank; the percentage of the food-insecure population who likely qualify for SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program) and other federal nutrition programs; the percentage of the food-insecure population who likely do not qualify for federal nutrition programs; the average meal cost in every state and county; and the food budget shortfall in every state and county.
According to the report, food insecurity exists in every county in the nation, from a high of 38 percent in Jefferson County, Mississippi, to a low of 3 percent in Grant County, Kansas. Children are at greater risk of hunger than the general population—across all counties, 21 percent of children are food insecure, while 14 percent of the general population are food insecure.
Feeding America used publicly available local data that research has shown to be associated with food insecurity, including unemployment, and poverty, as well as homeownership and median income. Using a technical advisory committee that ensures the research is untainted and unquestionable, the organization maintains a commitment to presenting unbiased, hard data.
Prior to Map the Meal Gap, local poverty rates were often used as a proxy for local food insecurity. However, national USDA data found that 57 percent of food-insecure people earn more than the federal poverty level, and 60 percent of people living in poor households are food secure.
“This is hard evidence that people can use if they want to approach their congressman or, in reverse, if a congressman needs to go on the floor of the house and say, ‘Look, this is what hunger looks like in my community. I can’t let the people who vote for me go hungry,'” Fraser explains. “This is evidence—documentation of the circumstances of each county and each congressional district.”
Finally, Fraser hopes that this study will reveal the pervasiveness of hunger in America. “We don’t see poverty reflected in our culture,” he says. “It’s off everyone’s radar, so it’s a continuing challenge to find new ways to frame up who we are and what we do and why it’s so vitally important.”