The Places Where ‘Food Insecurity’ Is Most Severe

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Data that a think-tank published this week shows where the challenges are greatest, along with some of the underlying factors that can make it difficult for people to afford food.

Food banks and government programs meant to help people cover the cost of groceries are among the topics that might come up in discussions about how to assist Americans who are struggling to afford enough food for themselves and their families.

But Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute, hopes that a data package her organization released this week will give policy makers and others a clearer view of some of the factors that are driving high levels of “food insecurity” in counties around the U.S.

These related issues can include things such as costs tied to health care, transportation and housing that can leave people short on grocery money, as well as financial strains like unemployment, poor credit and delinquent debt.

Federal estimates show that about 40 million Americans, including 12.5 million children, struggled with food insecurity in 2017. That’s about 12% of the nation’s total population. Food insecurity rates have improved since the Great Recession, Waxman noted, but still persist at relatively high levels in many places.

“You don't really move those numbers until you start tackling the root causes,” she said. “What we're suggesting is that there needs to be cross-sector conversations.”

In other words, efforts to address food insecurity would benefit if people working on the issue talked more with those focused on policy areas like transportation, public health and housing.

“Sometimes if you put the not usual suspects in the room, you start opening up some new strategies and ideas,” Waxman said.

With this in mind, the Urban Institute on Tuesday published an interactive map that color codes counties based on their level of food insecurity and other related risks and pressures. 

By selecting a county, users can see other data for the jurisdiction, like the share of people in the county without health insurance, or with diabetes, or the proportion of people facing high housing cost burdens. There are statistics for credit scores and debt in collections as well.

The online tool allows for comparisons between the different data points for each county with the county’s peer group of counties and with state and national figures.

As she offered examples of how food security is linked to other topics that the data covers, Waxman pointed out that research has shown people having trouble affording food are more likely than others to get diabetes, and are less well positioned to manage the condition.

Similarly, she said, if you could work with people in a community to improve their credit scores “that's the equivalent of actually putting more money in their pockets to buy basic needs.”

Even a quick glance at the map reveals that many of the counties with the worst food insecurity problems are located in southeast states, such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana—places bedeviled for generations by poverty, poor health outcomes and racial disparities.

But Waxman emphasized that the counties in these states are not alone, noting for instance that there are places in the southwest with large Native American populations and high levels of food insecurity. “That's something we should all be paying attention to,” she said.

There are also areas around booming cities where lower-income residents have been grappling with rising housing costs that are experiencing similar problems, according to Waxman.

“Clearly there are pockets of the country that have an intersection of both higher food insecurity and other things, like for example, really significant health challenges,” she said. “But I think it's always useful to point out to people that there's not a single county in the United States that doesn't have people who are food insecure." 

The Urban Institute data can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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