Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries, released its annual Map the Meal Gap report last week. The report analyzes food insecurity at a local level and provides an estimate of how many people are facing hunger in the United States.
The results show that 42 million people, 1 in 8 Americans, were food insecure in 2015. Although that is a startling number, it actually represents a 12.5% decrease from the previous year. Thirteen million children, 1 in 6, “lived in households without consistent access to adequate food“, a 13% decline from 2014.
Despite that overall decrease, there are people struggling with hunger in every county and congressional district in the United States. Additionally, Feeding America warns that “food insecurity and poverty remain higher than before the recession began in late 2007.”
Map the Meal Gap also studies what’s known as the “food budget shortfall.” By examining how food prices vary across the country, Feeding America is able to estimate how much financial support food insecure individuals need to make ends meet. This year’s report shows that food insecure households need an additional $17.38 per person, per week. Adjusting for inflation, that’s a 3% increase from 2014 and a 13% increase since 2008. In short, although fewer people are facing hunger, the struggle is getting worse for those who are.
What’s to account for the food budget shortfall? For starters, the cost of the average meal increased from $2.89 to $2.94. That may not seem like much on the surface, but for a family of four, that’s an extra $18 every month. Underemployment, stagnant wages, and rising housing costs are straining budgets even further. For households that are often forced to choose between eating and paying the utility bills, every dollar counts.
Hunger relief organizations like Feeding America and Move For Hunger serve millions of meals every year, but they are a wholly inadequate response to the problem. Federal nutrition assistance is absolutely vital to ensuring that people aren’t going hungry, and the Map the Meal Gap study shows that not all food insecure people qualify for these programs. An estimated 26% of food insecure individuals earn too much to qualify for federal nutrition assistance programs, and 20% of children live in ineligible households.
According to the report, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) “is the cornerstone of the federal nutrition safety net, is one of the country’s most successful programs, and has shown a demonstrated impact on improving food insecurity for those who access it.” More commonly known as “food stamps,” SNAP is critically important in the fight against child hunger. In 2015, 44% of SNAP participants were children. Any reduction in these benefits would make the lives of Americans facing hunger significantly more perilous.
Instead, the report’s authors recommend that policymakers should expand the reach of programs like SNAP, “especially in rural or remote communities, by improving program access, streamlining requirements for providers and applications for individuals, and supporting innovate delivery models.” Instead of restrictive time limits, state lawmakers should provide job training/placement or offer volunteer opportunities to those who are willing to work but unable to find jobs.
Any effort to end hunger in the United States must begin with a thorough understanding of the crisis and its underlying causes. Map the Meal Gap’s analysis is an invaluable resource because it provides quantifiable data that can be used to develop long-term strategies toward that goal. In the meantime, we must continue to provide meals for our neighbors who need help today.