With McDonald’s and Starbucks popping up on every street corner, it seems the United States is the last country plagued by hunger.
Yet food insecurity continues at high levels throughout the nation, according to new research reported last week by Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity based in Chicago.
“Map the Meal Gap 2014” analyses 2012 data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cook County ranked third for the highest number of food-insecure individuals, with 15.3 percent, despite lower unemployment rates and the end of the nationwide economic recession.
“The big news is the finding on the ‘Food Budget Shortfalls’ — the amount of money low-income Americans tell the Census Bureau they are short of having in order to provide themselves and their families with three square meals a day,” said Ross Fraser, the Feeding America media relations manager, in an email.
Last year the shortfall was $21.8 billion dollars, but the number has now grown to $23.5 billion — an increase of $1.7 billion. This was before food stamps were cut by $5 billion last November.
“This is especially salient right now because the school year is winding down, and we know that many children will then lose their access to school meals for the summer,” said Diane Schanzenbach, associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.
These findings are the only research available that quantifies food insecurity in the U.S. at the county level instead of the broader state scope.
“Differences across states appear to mask some of the important variation here, Schanzenbach said. “Some states have pockets of areas with high poverty and high unemployment, areas that are still trying to recover from the recent recession.”
The Northwestern economist also said county-by-county analysis is an important exercise to identify where the risks of food insecurity are predicted to be highest.
“Drilling down to this finer level of geography helps us understand where these pockets are, and where we should be targeting our help,” Schanzenbach said.
While Los Angeles County, Calif., has the highest number of food-insecure individuals (1.6 million), Humphreys County, Miss., bears the highest food-insecurity rate in the country at 33 percent. Among the 50 states, New Mexico has the highest rate of child food insecurity at 29 percent.
It is also significant to note that one in every five individuals is food insecure in 18 counties that also have high meal costs, meaning they fall into both the top 10 percent for highest food-insecurity rates and highest cost per meal. Nationwide, 49 million individuals are food insecure, and 16 million of them are children.
The fourth annual “Map the Meal Gap” project aims to use the data to determine better strategies for filling empty stomachs across America. View the full report here.