Spotlight Exclusives

Mapping Food Insecurity: A Step towards Ending Childhood Hunger

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Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity will be running a series of commentaries in the summer of 2012 on the fight to end childhood hunger in America.
This commentary is the fourth installment in the series, which is entitled “Ending Childhood Hunger in America.”

Food insecurity is a public health epidemic that affects 49 million Americans, and is particularly prevalent in our most vulnerable communities. One in five households with children are food insecure, and single parent families are even worse. Households with children headed by single women experience food insecurity at a rate of 35.1 percent.

Despite this terrible reality, some commentators continue to question whether food insecurity even exists in America. For that reason, Feeding America launched the Map the Meal Gap project. By demonstrating where food insecurity lurks in America, and the specific populations, including children, who are most affected, the project challenges people who look the other way. It can also bring us a step closer to ending child hunger once and for all by putting compelling data in the hands of those who can use it.

With the support of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and The Nielsen Company, we recently released our Map the Meal Gap 2012the latest installment of our annual county-by-county analysis of food insecurity in America. These data, based on information from 2010, reveal that food insecurity continues to exist in every county and congressional district in the United States. 

Food insecurity rates vary widely among counties across the country, from a low of five percent of the population in Steele, North Dakota, to a high of 37 percent in Holmes, Mississippi. But even the top ten percent of counties with the lowest food insecurity rates are home to over three million people struggling with hunger.

The report also found that, while food insecurity rates have remained steady across the U.S., communities with the highest rates of food insecurity in the past have continued to see these rates climb. For example, in Tensas Parish, Louisiana, the rate of food insecurity rose from 23 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2010. Tensas Parish borders Mississippi and has a poverty rate of 32 percent and an unemployment rate of 15 percent.  

In addition to helping us see where food insecurity exists, Map the Meal Gap 2012 also sheds light on the variation in food costs in counties across the country. According to self-reporting by those who are food secure, the national average cost per meal is $2.52. Locally, meal costs are estimated to be as low as $1.80 in Zavala, Texas and as high as $5.51 in Union, South Dakota. Acknowledging this variation is critical because many food insecure people who also live in areas where food prices are high face a particular challenge in getting the food they need. 

For the first time, these data have also enabled us to estimate the income resources available to food insecure people. We can use this information to determine the number of people who may be eligible for federal nutrition assistance, and how many people might be ineligible, and therefore more likely to rely on charities to help them feed their families.

In addition, this data can help us better appreciate how hunger is connected to other problems. For example, while the relationship between obesity and food insecurity is complex and not fully understood, both of these conditions often occur side-by-side in the same low-income communities. Yet, the discussion about a healthier American youth rarely includes a meaningful recognition of the barriers that food insecure families face in obtaining healthy foods.

Perhaps most importantly, Map the Meal Gap is designed to help policymakers and community leaders develop targeted strategies to fight hunger within their communities. While enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is at an all-time high, there has been little change in the rate of food insecurity since the beginning of the recession. Congress is currently considering dramatic cuts in critical federal nutrition programs like SNAP. Map the Meal Gap provides food insecurity estimates at the congressional district level to help our leaders understand the impact of the proposed cuts on their constituents.

While we are proud of our network۪s ability to feed more than 37 million people through our nationwide network of 202 food banks and 61,000 partner agencies, food banks cannot possibly fill the gap that would be created by these proposed cuts. The Map the Meal Gap data will show who is most affected by proposed cuts, and help make the case for needed assistance to hungry families and children.

Making sure that every person has enough food is critical to ensuring a strong future for our nation. Hunger undermines our communities, our educational system, our workforce, our public health, and our national security. It weakens our ability to thrive and compete in the global economy. 

The first step towards fighting childhood hunger is by encouraging conversations based on accurate data at both the community and national levels about food insecurity and the risks it poses to our nation۪s prosperity.     

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Vicki Escarra is the president and chief executive officer of Feeding America.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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