Counties in Mississippi and in Arizona have the direst problem of counties nationwide with food insecurity and hunger, according to a study to be released Thursday by a nonprofit based in Chicago.
Food insecurity is defined as consistent access to adequate food supplies limited by lack of money.
What’s more, the numbers of Americans who are food insecure are virtually holding steady, but other areas of the economy, including numbers of jobs, have improved since the height of the recession back in 2008, according to Feeding America. The worst numbers tend to emerge in counties where most of the population is black or Native American, the organization reports. The problem is in every county in the country, according to Feeding America.
“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 in a telephone interview. “It’s simply not true,” she said.
Map the Meal Gap 2016 is based on figures from a statistical regression analysis of Census Bureau data incorporated with U.S. Department of Agriculture Data from the Current Population Survey.
Food banks, members of Congress and the USDA all rely on the numbers, Aviv said. The study that first launched in 2011 provides the only nationwide data on hunger at the level of county and congressional district.
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.
The study shows that Jefferson County, Miss., has the highest rate among U.S. counties of food insecurity at 38%. The nationwide county average is a little less than 15%, according to Feeding America.
The county in the southwest part of the state regularly takes a top spot when it comes to nationwide measures of poverty. 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., that studies hunger and other issues in the state.
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 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 closest major grocery store is 60 miles away, she said. The last time the organization gave out turkeys for Thanksgiving, one person said it was the first time they could remember having a turkey for thanksgiving, 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.”
When asked about the phenomenon that the two worst statistics are in the South and in the West, parts of the country that have been hailed as affordable, Aviv noted that sometimes inequalities can cause such problems. When employees of affluent households live near their employment, they must survive within the higher prices for goods and services in those areas, Aviv said.
She also pointed out that most of the benefits of post-recession recovery have gone to Americans at upper-income levels.
Aviv hopes that congressional leaders take heed of the figures as they review bills at the committee level tied to funding of the child nutrition program. A Senate version maintains status quo and proposes some increases in benefits, but a House version proposes drastic cuts, she said.
“Our stance is: At the very least, do no harm,” Aviv said.