Food insecurity has become a leading health care issue in the United States. This is due to two central reasons. First, the magnitude of the problem remains staggering. Despite the end of the Great Recession in 2009, food insecurity rates remain far above the levels pre-recession. In 2014, 15.4% of individuals (48.1 million) lived in food insecure households. Second, substantial literature has found that food insecurity leads to worse health outcomes across the age spectrum. As might be expected with these negative health outcomes, evidence from Canada, a country with a similar food insecurity landscape as the United States, demonstrates that health care costs are substantially higher for food-insecure individuals.
Addressing the problem of food insecurity requires an understanding of its multiple determinants. While differences in household characteristics are factors in the probability of food insecurity, geography also plays a critical role—especially for food banks and other institutions that need to allocate scarce resources to those most in need. Feeding America’s network of food banks and other organizations face the challenge of determining how best to target scarce resources to areas most in need.
In 2011, in response to the dearth of local-level measures of need, Feeding America began releasing estimates of overall and child food insecurity rates for all counties in the United States. This large-scale effort, titled Map the Meal Gap (MMG), has provided numerous insights regarding the geographic distribution of food insecurity, including the incredibly high rates of food insecurity in some of the most rural counties in the United States.
The 2015 MMG study found that rural counties are more likely to have high rates of food insecurity than non-rural counties. To better understand counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, we looked at those in the top 10% of the nation’s 3,143 counties. We then analyzed them according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) geographic classifications of metropolitan, micropolitan and neither (“rural”).
Figure 1: Percentage of people per county who are food insecure, 2013
The average food-insecurity rate in 2013 for these “high food-insecurity rate” counties was 23%, compared to 15% among all U.S. counties. In other words, within these highest risk counties, nearly one in four residents struggled with hunger. Not only are these high food-insecurity rate counties more likely to be rural (54%) than either metropolitan (22%) or micropolitan (24%), but they are rural at a disproportionately higher percentage than the average U.S. county—54% versus 43%.
Our analysis also shows that the majority of counties with the highest rates of child food insecurity are rural, as well. The average child food-insecurity rate across all U.S. counties is nearly 24% percent, while the average rate among counties with the highest rates of child food insecurity is 32%. Among these counties with the highest rates of child food insecurity, 62% are considered rural, compared to only 43% of U.S. counties overall.
Addressing the problem of food insecurity in these remote rural areas will require a wide array of tools. Any effort, though, must include ways to help eligible households in these areas receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest food assistance program in the United States. The program is large, both in terms of number of people reached (about 47 million in 2014) and the maximum benefit levels (almost $650 for a family of four). It has proven to be an enormously successful program across numerous dimensions. In particular, research has demonstrated that SNAP recipients are upwards of 20% less likely to be food insecure than eligible non-recipients.
Along with leveraging SNAP, Feeding America has implemented programs to reduce food insecurity in rural areas. For example, Feeding America teamed up with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, ADM, Monsanto, Cargill, Farm Credit Services of America, and independent elevator groups and cooperatives to launch Invest An Acre, a program that enables farmers and rural community members to donate a portion of their proceeds to help feed their neighbors in need. Now in its fourth year, Invest An Acre has raised more than $3 million to fight rural hunger—the equivalent of more than 9 million meals—across 70 food banks. In addition, a group of 16 Feeding America network food banks have convened as part of an Invest an Acre Accelerator Group to share best practices and identify opportunities for the program’s further growth. Feeding America also launched its first Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute, selecting 20 food banks to share their successes, challenges and best practices on how to better reach children in remote areas.
This article was authored by Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois, and Adam Dewey, Michael Kato and Amy S. Crumbaugh, all of Feeding America.