Study Shows State and Local Food Insecurity Reached Lowest Levels Since its Inception 10 Years Ago

Improvements likely erased by COVID-19 pandemic, per study’s projections

June 3, 2020

After nearly ten years, food insecurity levels for most communities across the country had reached their lowest levels in 2018, according to a study released by Feeding America. Map the Meal Gap, released today by Feeding America, is the only study that provides local-level estimates of food insecurity across the United States. Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, has released the report for ten consecutive years to offer insights on how food insecurity and food costs vary at the local level.

In conjunction with the Map the Meal Gap study, which uses the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Census Bureau, Feeding America has released an interactive map based on its recently released study, The Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Insecurity, which used 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 coronavirus (COVD-19) pandemic. That analysis shows that progress made to food insecurity in the U.S. this past decade will likely be wiped out and food insecurity rates will climb higher than the peak of the Great Recession of 50 million people, potentially going from more than 37 million people facing hunger in 2018 up to more than 54 million in 2020.

“Map the Meal Gap shows once again that not one single county in this country is free from hunger,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America. “In the decade before the pandemic, we made progress in finally returning to pre-Great Recession levels of food insecurity, though that number was still regrettably high. That fragile progress has given way under the weight of this crisis. The Feeding America network of food banks knows all too well the precarious nature of household budgets. We also know that the work that we do has great potential to help and we cannot make meaningful progress alone. Our vision is an America where no one is hungry.  Join us in making that mission a reality for the tens of millions of people out there who need us now more than ever.”

Per Map the Meal Gap 2020, all 3,142 counties and county equivalents as well as 436 congressional districts in all 50 states are home to people who struggle with hunger. The percentage of the population estimated to be food insecure in 2018 ranges from a low of 3.6% of the population in Burke County, North Dakota up to 30.4% in Jefferson County, Mississippi. Child food insecurity rates range from 2.4% in Falls Church City, Virginia to 43.7% in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana.

According to the COVID-19 impact analysis, the food insecurity rates for all counties across the country will likely see increases. For example, Jefferson County, Mississippi, the county with the highest overall food insecurity rate is projected to increase from 30.4% to 34.2% this year. Burke County, North Dakota, which had the lowest overall food insecurity rate in 2018, is projected to see a food insecurity rate (9.2%) more than 2.5 times its most recent rate (3.6%). In East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, more than half the child population is projected to be food insecure, with the rate going from 43.7% to 52.5% because of the pandemic. 

While food insecurity affects every community, people of color and African Americans, in particular, are disproportionately impacted as a result of structural disparities. In 2018, food insecurity among African American households was more than twice that of white, non-Hispanic households according to the USDA. Structural and institutional racism have positioned communities of color as particularly vulnerable to the economic fallout and health consequences of this pandemic. Systemic barriers to jobs less likely to be affected by the pandemic, lower than average wages, and greater employment instability all contribute to African American workers being more at risk of experiencing food insecurity. Both pre-pandemic and in 2020, counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are overrepresented by counties with a majority African American population. For example, in Jefferson County, Mississippi, which has the highest food insecurity rate in 2018 and highest projected rate in 2020, 86% of the population is African American.

These Feeding America studies underscore the extent of need that remains in communities across the United States. 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 2020 include:

  • One-third of people who are food insecure may not qualify for federal food assistance. Virtually every county (97%) is home to people who are food insecure and likely ineligible for such assistance, and there are 115 counties in which a majority of people estimated to be food insecure is unlikely to qualify.
  • 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 87% of counties with food insecurity rates in the top 10%.
  • An estimated 84% 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.

“Hunger in America must become unacceptable for all of us,” Babineaux-Fontenot continued. “There were 37 million people facing hunger before the pandemic, but most people had no idea. If there is any ‘silver lining’ to the dark cloud of this pandemic, it is that the American public is far better informed about the food crisis that has accompanied the health one. We know it will take an entire network of support, including food banks, partner agencies like food pantries, federal nutrition programs, the food industry, and the public to make the progress that is so desperately needed.”

Map the Meal Gap 2020 uses data from USDA, the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and food price data and analysis provided by Nielsen, a global measurement and data analytics company. The study is supported by Conagra Brands Foundation and Nielsen

“Conagra Brands Foundation is proud to partner with Feeding America and food banks across the country to help provide food to children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens.  Helping to increase awareness of this critical issue, which affects every community in America, has never been more important,” said Robert J. Rizzo, Senior Director, Community Investment, Conagra Brands and Conagra Brands Foundation.

In addition to food-insecurity estimates, Map the Meal Gap reports on food price variation across counties. Using data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), the study finds that, on average, food-secure individuals report spending $3.09 per person, per meal as of 2018. This is essentially the same as the national average of $3.02 ($3.09 in 2018 dollars) as reported in Map the Meal Gap last year.

After adjusting the national average meal cost of $3.09 based on local sales taxes and Nielsen data on relative food prices, Map the Meal Gap 2020 finds that county meal costs range from 69% of the national average in places like Llano County, Texas ($2.14) to more than double the average cost in places like New York County, New York ($6.19).

“Nielsen is proud to continue our decade long data and analytics partnership to Map the Meal Gap. Eliminating hunger is especially urgent with so many vulnerable people during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said David Rawlinson, CEO, Nielsen Global Connect.

Dr. Craig Gundersen, ACES Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois and a member of Feeding America's Technical Advisory Group is the lead researcher of Map the Meal Gap 2020 and the food insecurity projection analysis.

Map the Meal Gap 2020 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.

The Map the Meal Gap 2020 map allows policymakers, state agencies, corporate partners, food banks and advocates to develop integrated strategies to fight hunger on a community level.

Separately, a new interactive map shows the 2020 food insecurity projections compared to the most recent Map the Meal Gap data. To account for local unemployment variation, this new analysis adjusts the national annual unemployment projection due to COVID-19 using projected changes in the unemployment rate by industry and occupation from Goldman Sachs Investment Research and actual percentages of workers by industry from the American Community Survey.

Along with the interactive map and visualizations, Feeding America has also published a series of report briefs, including a summary of key findings as well as analyses on child food insecurity, food price variation and health, disability and food insecurity.  

Federal nutrition assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), serve as the first line of defense against hunger. However, not everyone who is food insecure qualifies for these federal programs. As of 2018, one in three (32%) food-insecure individuals who reported income lived in households unlikely to qualify for most federal food assistance. These findings underscore the importance of protecting and strengthening the existing safety net of public food assistance while also investing in the charitable programs that help to fill the gap for people who are not eligible. To join Feeding America’s Campaign to End Hunger, visit feedingamerica.org/act.

Join the conversation about Map the Meal Gap 2020 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 www.feedingamerica.org, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.