Life Gets Harder for America's Hungry

May 4, 2017

Millions of hardworking Americans facing hunger are finding it increasingly difficult to afford enough food and groceries to feed themselves and their families, according to a new study released today by Feeding America®, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. This is among many revelations on the state of hunger in America published in Map the Meal Gap 2017, the latest report on the cost of food and food insecurity at both the county and congressional district level in the United States.

The study finds that food-insecure individuals now face, on average, a food budget shortfall of $527.19 per person per year. Even accounting for inflation, this is an increase of 13 percent since 2008, the first full year of the Great Recession. This rising measure of need suggest that people facing hunger are likely falling further behind as they continue to struggle to buy enough food to meet their needs.

“This is grim news,” said Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America. “It is disheartening to realize that millions of hardworking, low-income Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to feed themselves and their families at the same time that our economy is showing many signs of improvement, including a substantial decline in the number of people who are unemployed. This study underscores the need for strong federal nutrition programs as well of the importance of charitable food assistance programs, especially the food pantries and meal programs served by the Feeding America network of food banks.”

These findings are particularly surprising as the number of Americans identified by the USDA as food insecure fell from 50 million in 2009 to 42 million in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. 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.

Other key findings of Map the Meal Gap 2017 are:

  • Food insecurity exists in every county in the nation, from a high of 38 percent in Jefferson County, Mississippi, to a low of 3 percent in Grant County, Kansas.
  • Children are at greater risk of hunger than the general population. Across all counties, 21 percent are food insecure, compared to 14 percent among the general population.
  • In 76 counties, a majority of food-insecure individuals are likely ineligible for most federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and free and reduced-priced school lunch programs, underscoring the importance of not only the charitable food assistance sector, but also a strong and effective safety net of public nutrition assistance programs. According to 2015 data from the USDA, 26 percent of food-insecure people likely do not qualify for such federal assistance.
  • An estimated 89 percent of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity — those that rank in the top 10 percent of all counties — are in the Southern United States.
  • 76 percent of counties in the top 10 percent of food insecure counties are rural. Predominantly rural counties have higher rates of food insecurity than predominately urban counties.

“Feeding America is particularly concerned about children who struggle with hunger because of the devastating and sometimes life-long consequences caused by lack of adequate nutrition. It is distressing to read in this report that 41 percent of the children who live in Issaquena County, Mississippi are food insecure. The lowest rate of child food insecurity, six percent, is found in the sparsely populated Cavalier County in North Dakota. We have to do better than that. Children are our most vulnerable citizens,” Aviv said.

In addition to food insecurity estimates, Map the Meal Gap 2017 reports on food price variation across counties. Using data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), the study finds that, on average, food-secure individuals report spending $2.94 per person, per meal. This is a slight increase from the national average of $2.89 as reported in Map the Meal Gap 2016.

Map the Meal Gap 2017 uses data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and food price data and analysis provided by Nielsen, a global provider of information and insights. The study is supported by founding sponsor The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Conagra Brands Foundation and Nielsen.

“Hunger in America is too often hidden from view, which is why we think the Map the Meal Gap study is so critical,” said Howard G. Buffett, Chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Founding Sponsor of the Map the Meal Gap study. “Map the Meal Gap shines a light on this complex problem to show us county by county and congressional district by congressional district where food insecurity exists and what it takes to tackle it. We see this study both as a report card on how we’re doing as a country and a blueprint for where to target solutions to address, and hopefully one day end, food insecurity in America.”

“Conagra Brands Foundation is proud to support the Map the Meal Gap research, which helps the public better understand the prevalence of hunger in America. We are committed to raising awareness of food insecurity and alleviating hunger in communities across the country. In partnership with Feeding America and its network of 200 food banks, the Conagra Brands Foundation helps to create a world where people have access to the food they need to reach their full potential,” said Robert J. Rizzo, Senior Director, Community Investment, Conagra Brands and Conagra Brands Foundation.

"Nielsen believes in the power of data to make a difference, which is why we continue to commit resources to Feeding America through Map the Meal Gap and skills-based volunteering work driven by our employees," said Crystal Barnes, VP of Global Responsibility & Sustainability, Nielsen. "We strongly believe in Feeding America's mission to reduce food insecurity in our communities, and we're proud that our work on Map the Meal Gap can be a part of that mission."

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 2017.

This is the seventh consecutive year that Feeding America has conducted the Map the Meal Gap study.

Map the Meal Gap 2017 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 qualify for SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program) and other federal nutrition programs.
  • The percentage of the food-insecure population who likely do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and thus must rely on charitable food assistance programs. These are households reporting earnings higher than the federal programs income requirement. 
  • The average meal cost in every state and county.
  • The food budget shortfall in every state and county.

The Map the Meal Gap 2017 interactive map allows policymakers, state agencies, corporate partners, food banks and individual advocates to develop integrated strategies to fight hunger on a community level.

A summary of the findings, an interactive map of the United States, and the full report are available at

Join the conversation about Map the Meal Gap 2017 on Twitter using #MealGap.


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About Feeding America

Feeding America® is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States. Through a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, we provide meals to more than 40 million people each year. Feeding America also supports programs that prevent food waste and improve food security among the people we serve; educates the public about the problem of hunger; and advocates for legislation that protects people from going hungry. Visit, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.