Feeding America Study Shows Food Insecure Families Need More to Make Ends Meet

People Facing Hunger Reported Needing an Additional $45 Per Month for Food Before Covid-19

May 19, 2021

A new study released today by Feeding America shows that household budgets were seeing further strain despite improvements in overall food insecurity rates before the pandemic. Map the Meal Gap is the only study that provides local-level estimates of food insecurity and food costs across the United States and has been produced by Feeding America for the last 11 years now. This year’s study, which provides data for 2019, shows a widening gap for households struggling to get by ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Map the Meal Gap provides key insights into a food-insecure household budget. A person who is food insecure is estimated to need, on average, an additional $45 per month to buy just enough food to meet their needs as of 2019, a slight increase after declining every year since 2015. In addition, the study finds that one-third of people who live in food-insecure households are likely ineligible for SNAP and other federal nutrition programs, further underscoring the importance of charitable food assistance and the need to protect and strengthen federal nutrition programs.

“As the only study to provide local-level food insecurity data, Map the Meal Gap is a critical tool as we work to understand the root causes of hunger,” said Tom Summerfelt, VP of research at Feeding America. “While the economic crisis unfolded last year in the wake of the pandemic, Map the Meal Gap provided the basis for our projections analysis that helped the Feeding America network plan an effective response and work more effectively with partners to serve our neighbors in need.”

Food insecurity is a measure defined by the USDA as lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The 2021 release of Map the Meal Gap continued to show that all 3,142 counties and county equivalents, as well as 436 congressional districts in all 50 states, are home to people facing hunger. The percentage of the population estimated to be food insecure in 2019 ranges from a low of 2.9% of the population in Steele County, North Dakota up to 29.4% in Issaquena County, Mississippi. Child food insecurity rates range from 1.4% in Falls Church City, Virginia to 43.9% in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana.

Other key findings of the 2021 release of Map the Meal Gap include:

  • Counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are disproportionately rural. Rural counties – those outside of major metropolitan areas – make up 63% of all U.S counties, but 91% of counties with food insecurity rates in the top 10%.
  • An estimated 80% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity – those that rank in the top 10% of all 3,142 counties – are in the South. Since the South contains 45% of all U.S. counties, this region is home to a disproportionately high number of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity.
  • The national average cost per meal, a measure is based on weekly food expenditure data from the Census Bureau Current Population Survey as reported by individuals who are food secure, was $3.13 in 2019, down slightly from 2018.

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, a global measurement, and data analytics company. The study is supported by Conagra Brands Foundation and NielsenIQ.

“Conagra supports Feeding America and its network of food banks through a holistic approach that includes contributions, product donations, and employee volunteer efforts. Map the Meal Gap is a valuable annual resource that raises awareness and provides essential data used to inform many actions that are taken to address the issue of food insecurity in our communities,” said Robert J. Rizzo, Senior Director, Community Investment, Conagra Brands, and Conagra Brands Foundation.

“We are thrilled to continue our relationship with Feeding America,” says Jeanne Danubio, President, North America of NielsenIQ. “Using our data and expertise creates a sense of purpose for our teams who are eager to initiate and design solutions for today's social challenges. I'm proud that NielsenIQ’s data can be used to not only help clients optimize their performances but that we can also deliver the same complete truth to Feeding America to facilitate their tireless work and determination to eradicate food insecurity.”

In addition to food insecurity estimates, Map the Meal Gap reports on food price variation across counties.

After adjusting the national average meal cost of $3.13 based on local sales taxes and NielsenIQ data on relative food prices, the study finds that county meal costs range from 68% of the national average in places like Llano County, Texas ($2.13) to twice the national average in places like New York County, New York ($6.04). Not all urban areas have high food prices, however, and not every rural community is affordable. Leelanau County in rural northwestern Michigan is home to the highest meal cost in the country ($6.77). For a household struggling to afford housing, utilities, transportation, and other basic necessities, the additional burden of high food prices can have a significant impact on a household’s budget.<

Dr. Craig Gundersen, Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, Executive Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory, and a member of Feeding America’s Technical Advisory Group is the lead researcher of Map the Meal Gap.

Map the Meal Gap provides the following data online through an interactive map

  • The estimated percentage of the population and number of individuals who are food insecure in every U.S. state, county, and congressional district, as well as the service area of each Feeding America food bank.
  • 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.

Food insecurity is experienced differently across race and ethnicity identities. For example, at the national level, food insecurity rates are at least twice as high among Black, Latino, and Native American individuals when compared to white individuals. While the Map the Meal Gap study does not currently include local food insecurity rates broken down by race or ethnicity, Feeding America has partnered with Tableau to publish a new interactive tool, Identifying Racism in the Drivers of Food Insecurity. The tool is a racial data disaggregation dashboard that allows users to explore state-, food bank service area-, and county-level data for five drivers of food insecurity used in Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap model to estimate local food insecurity: poverty, unemployment, median income, homeownership, and disability status. By disaggregating by key drivers, Feeding America hopes to provide greater visibility into the way systemic racism affects the root causes of hunger.

In addition, Feeding America has released food insecurity projections for 2020 and 2021. The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity leverages the Map the Meal Gap model to predict changes to food insecurity rates for the overall population and children in response to projected changes to poverty and unemployment in the wake of the COVD-19 pandemic. According to the latest projections, up to 42 million people may experience food insecurity in 2021, which is down from earlier projections. That food insecurity levels may be lower than originally projected is likely a reflection of the massive public/private partnership to meet an emerging food crisis that has taken place since the pandemic began.

Map the Meal Gap was recently awarded the 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 5.2 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.