New Study from Feeding America Shows Extensive Disparities in Food Insecurity at the County Level

Only Study to Provide Nation-wide Estimates of Local Food Insecurity Adds Analysis by Race and Ethnicity

July 20, 2022

For the twelfth year, Feeding America has published its landmark research study, Map the Meal Gap, which once again finds that food insecurity exists in all 3,143 counties and county equivalents as well as 436 congressional districts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Map the Meal Gap is the only study that provides local-level estimates of food insecurity and food costs across the United States. This year’s study, which provides data for 2020, for the first time includes food insecurity rates for several racial and ethnic groups at the local level and reveals that disparities can vary greatly by population and place.

“Every community in this country experiences food insecurity, but we do not all experience it the same way. These data provide the most complete picture available, and we know behind these data are people and communities who will be impacted by the changes we must make to ensure no one goes hungry,” said Tom Summerfelt, PhD, Chief Research Officer of Feeding America. “It is only by understanding the realities of food insecurity within our communities that we can truly address them. Map the Meal Gap provides incredible insights and data and is available to everyone so that people facing hunger, policymakers, and community leaders can come together and craft policies that increase food access for all.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Household Food Security in the United States in 2020 report found that 38 million people, including nearly 12 million children lived in food insecure households. Map the Meal Gap uses the most recent data from USDA, the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and food price data and analysis provided by NielsenIQ to estimate food insecurity and related statistics at the county and sub-county level. Map the Meal Gap shows that though food insecurity exists in every county, the percentage of the population estimated to be food insecure ranges from a low of 3% in Bowman County, North Dakota up to nearly 30% in places like Holmes County, Mississippi. Child food insecurity rates range from less than 1% in Falls Church City, Virginia to 46% in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana.

Of the 38 million people experiencing food insecurity in the U.S., 15.2 million are white, 11.1 million are Latino, 9.5 million are Black, and 2.4 million are Native Americans, Asian American and Pacific Islanders or multiple races. While nearly 40% of the food insecure population in the U.S. is white, Black, Native American, and Latino individuals are 2 to over 3 times more likely to live in food insecure households.  Among counties where data are available to compare, food insecurity among Black and Latino individuals is higher than among white, non-Hispanic individuals in nearly every case. These disparities range in magnitude. In some places, Black and Latino individuals experience food insecurity at a rate over 10 times that of white, non-Hispanic individuals. 

Map the Meal Gap provides invaluable data to help better illuminate racial and geographic disparities. That in one county, one group experiences hardship at a rate ten times higher than another group should be an awakening. Still, we know that there are other groups, such as Native Americans and Asian American and Pacific Islanders, for which data are not available that also are underserved,” Summerfelt continued. “To address these gaps, federal and state surveys must invest in adequately sampling and collecting food insecurity data that can be disaggregated in meaningful ways. If we do that, with that knowledge, communities can be better equipped with the tools necessary to support their neighbors in need.”

Other key findings of Map the Meal Gap include:
•    9 out of 10 high food insecurity counties are rural: Rural counties – those outside of major metropolitan areas – make up 63% of all U.S counties, but 87% of counties with food insecurity rates in the top 10% of all 3,142 counties.
•    8 out of 10 high food insecurity counties are in the South: An estimated 82% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in the South, though the South comprises less than half of all U.S. counties
•    The national average cost per meal was $3.25: The national average cost per meal, a measure based on weekly food expenditure data from the Census Bureau Current Population Survey as reported by individuals who are food secure, was $3.25 in 2020, up slightly from 2019.
•    1 in 3 people facing hunger are unlikely to quality for SNAP: SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the first line of defense against hunger, yet availability can vary in part by state income thresholds, which range from 130% to 200% of the federal poverty line (between $36,075 to $55,500 for a family of four as of January 2022). As such, county estimates indicate that, on average, 1 in 3 individuals who live in food-insecure homes may not be eligible for SNAP.

Dr. Craig Gundersen, Snee Family Endowed Chair at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty and a Professor in the Department of Economics at Baylor University and a member of Feeding America’s Technical Advisory Group is the lead researcher of Map the Meal Gap. The study is supported by Conagra Brands Foundation and NielsenIQ.

“Conagra Brands Foundation is proud to support Feeding America and its network of food banks in raising awareness of food insecurity. Map the Meal Gap is a vital annual resource that now also documents the disproportionate impact that food insecurity has on communities of color. It is our hope that this national research continues to drive vital conversations about the prevalence of hunger in America and informs meaningful actions that increase consistent access to nutritious food for people in all communities,” said Robert J. Rizzo, Senior Director, Community Investment, Conagra Brands and Conagra Brands Foundation. 

“At NielsenIQ, we are committed to promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth for all, including people experiencing food insecurity. Our comprehensive datasets play a critical role in helping Feeding America achieve their mission of increasing access to nutritious food for all. Nutritious food is expensive, and the higher cost of healthy foods often put them out of reach for low-income populations, many of which are disproportionately communities of color. We believe that retailers and manufacturers have a duty to implement business strategies to solve food inequities and help make food more accessible to millions of Americans," said Kymberly Graham, Vice President and Head of Diversity Initiatives, NielsenIQ, a global measurement and data analytics company.

Map the Meal Gap also reports on food price variation across counties and the study finds that county meal costs range from 68% of the national average in places like Llano County, Texas ($2.19) up to three times the national average in Pacific County, Washington ($10.61), with most high food insecurity counties seeing around two times the national average. For a household struggling to afford housing, utilities, transportation and other necessities, the additional burden of high food prices can have a significant impact on a household’s budget – important to note especially as the country is experiencing record inflation not seen in 40 years.  

Map the Meal Gap provides the following data online through an interactive map:
•    The estimated prevalence of food insecurity among the overall and child population for every U.S. state, county, and congressional district, as well as the service area of each Feeding America food bank.
•    The estimated food insecurity prevalence for Black, Latino, and white communities where sufficient sample sizes have allowed estimates to be generated.
•    The percentage of the food-insecure population who likely qualifies for SNAP and other federal nutrition programs.
•    The percentage of the food-insecure population who likely does not qualify for federal nutrition programs and thus must rely even more on charitable food assistance. These percentages reflect individuals in households with earnings that are higher than the state gross income limits for federal nutrition programs. 
•    The average meal cost in every state and county.
•    The food budget shortfall in every state and county.

Map the Meal Gap was awarded the 2021 Policy Impact Award by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The full suite of Map the Meal Gap research from Feeding America allows policymakers, state agencies, corporate partners, food banks and advocates to develop integrated strategies to fight hunger on a community level. 

To explore the various research tools and briefs available from Feeding America, visit feedingamerica.org/research.


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About Feeding America

Feeding America® is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States. Through a network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs, we helped provide 6.6 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year. Feeding America also supports programs that prevent food waste and improve food security among the people we serve; brings attention to the social and systemic barriers that contribute to food insecurity in our nation; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Visit www.feedingamerica.org, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

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