A new report from the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, Feeding America, points to a persistent problem of food insecurity: the socio-economic condition where people have limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
The report said food insecurity rates across counties remained high at 14.7 percent in 2014, the most recent year its data obtained.
James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, said food insecurity remains elevated in part because of the sluggish nature of the economic recovery, which has been especially hard for low-income earners. “They were slow to regain full-time employment, and many households still have not,” he said. “And the jobs they were able to get after the Great Recession were often times below what they made before the recession.”
Feeding America’s report said 90 percent of the counties with the highest food insecurity rates in 2014 were in the South, where average incomes are lower, according to Ziliak. "Another factor is the fraction of the population that lives in rural communities is higher, and rural Americans are at greater risk of food insecurity,” he said. Counties in Mississippi and in Arizona have the direst problem of counties nationwide with food insecurity and hunger. The worst numbers tend to emerge in counties where most of the population is black or Native American, the organization reports. The study shows that Jefferson County, Miss., has the highest rate among U.S. counties of food insecurity at 38%. Residents have become apathetic and cynical about it, said Jake McGraw, public policy director for the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation, a nonprofit based in University, Miss. Jefferson County is extremely rural and jobs are scarce, McGraw said. Two-thirds of the people with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have to drive 30 miles to use them, he said. Exacerbating the problem is that the state has imposed much lower income cut-offs for public food assistance than other states, he said. “Even with that threshold, we still have the highest percentage of poor population that get food stamps,” he said. “We have such great need that many people use it as a lifeline," he said. When it comes to food insecurity among children, Apache County, Ariz., has the biggest problem nationwide, the study shows. Apache’s rate of child food insecurity is 42% while the national average is 24%, Feeding America reports. Apache includes parts of the Navajo Nation, as well as the Zuni and Fort Apache Native American reservations. Local companies are laying off employees and residents are limited in what kind of foods they can try to grow because of the desert climate, said Ginny Hildebrand, CEO of the United Food Bank, an agency based in Mesa, Ariz., that serves food banks in the region and supplies local children with weekly food packs to tide them over on the weekends, when they don’t have school lunches. The closest major grocery store is 60 miles away, she said. “This is really the Third World among us,” Hildebrand said. “When you don’t have food and it’s an ongoing persistent challenge to food yourself, food begins to be a very precious gift … Most people in our country cannot begin to perceive that.”
The packs are intended for the children, but wind up helping to feed entire families, Hildebrand said. In one public school in the area 100% of the children qualify for school lunches, she said.
The problem is in every county in the country, according to Feeding America. Feeding America’s chief executive, Diana Aviv, said there are many households in the country where families may not fall below the federal poverty level but are still struggling. “The public at large thinks that this problem has gone away,” she said. She also pointed out that most of the benefits of post-recession recovery have gone to Americans at upper-income levels.
The report counts 167 counties where the majority of food insecure children don’t qualify for federal nutrition programs. Aviv said many families in that situation lean heavily on food banks and soup kitchens in her organization’s network. “There is no member of Congress that can say happily that they in fact have no food insecurity in their counties,” Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv told USA TODAY. “It’s simply not true,” she said.
The study shows that in 2007, before the recession, 12.2% of the country was food insecure, Aviv said. By 2008, that number jumped to 16.4% and in 2014, the most recent year for which there is data, the number had dropped to only 15.4% she said. The numbers for childhood food insecurity are even starker, Aviv said. The number was 16.9% in 2007, rose to 22.5% in 2008 and dropped to only 20.9% in by 2014, Aviv said. “It hasn’t kept up with the increase in jobs or the decline in unemployment,” she said.