CHICAGO, IL - Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, has just released a landmark study, " Map the Meal Gap," providing insight for the first time about the number of meals missing from the tables of American families struggling with hunger each year – an estimated 8.4 billion nationwide.
The findings of "Map the Meal Gap" are based on statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Census Bureau, and food price data and analysis provided by The Nielsen Company, a global information and measurement company providing insights into what consumers watch and buy. The study was supported by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Nielsen.
According to U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey data, people struggling with hunger estimate they would need about $56 more each month on average during the months that they are food insecure to address the shortages in their food budget. On a national level, "Map the Meal Gap" shows this shortfall represents an estimated $21.3 billion on an annual basis.
In a departure from the standard of measuring meals in pounds, "Map the Meal Gap" estimates the relative cost of a meal, adjusting the national average of $2.54 per meal that food secure people report they usually spend on an average meal, according to food prices in each county.
"Map the Meal Gap" also provides critical information that has never been previously available -- food insecurity rates for each county and Congressional District. Previously, food insecurity data was only available at the state level in the USDA's annual report. The study further analyzes each county's food insecure population to determine their income eligibility for federal nutrition assistance. This data has the potential to redefine the way service providers and policy makers address areas of need.
"We know hunger exists in every state across the nation, but it looks different from county to county, and therefore, so do the solutions. The results of this study show that the best way for us to help people facing hunger is to understand who is hungry and why they are hungry at the community level," said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America.
"Together, the emergency food system and critical federal nutrition programs weave a comprehensive nutrition safety net reaching at-risk Americans at different income bands and in different settings, with special focus on vulnerable child and senior populations."
"There is no 'one size fits all' solution for hunger. For example, in Pulaski County, which is at the southern tip of Illinois, more than 20 percent of the population is food insecure. Of those individuals, 63 percent are potentially eligible for enrollment in the SNAP program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). This sample alone shows just how significant SNAP can be for many communities in this country," said Escarra.
"But in Lake County Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, 54 percent of the food insecure population does not qualify for food stamps or other government programs, so they often must rely on Feeding America and other charities to help feed themselves and their families."
"Map the Meal Gap" provides the following data for each county in the United States in an interactive map format available online:
The percentage of the population who is food insecure.
The percentage of the food insecure population who qualify based on income for SNAP (foods stamps) and other federal nutrition programs.
The percentage of the food insecure population who do NOT qualify for federal nutrition programs and often must rely on charitable food assistance programs and who also need better wages and employment opportunities to help them meet their basic needs.
The average price per meal in each county, based on new research by The Nielsen Company.
"The interactive map will, for the first time, allow policy makers, state agencies, corporate partners and individual advocates to develop integrated strategies to fight hunger on a community by community level," said Escarra.
"Map the Meal Gap" was conducted using well-established, transparent methods. Data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, the USDA, and the Nielsen Company were analyzed by Feeding America in partnership with Dr. Craig Gundersen, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, Executive Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory and member of Feeding America's Technical Advisory Group.
The Top 44
Among the key findings of the study is that there are 44 counties in the U.S. that fall into the top 10 percent categories for both food insecurity and food prices. These counties struggle with strikingly high food insecurity, high poverty, high unemployment and above-average food costs.
On average, 1 in every 4 persons in these counties is food insecure. These counties are characterized by dire economic conditions - over one-in-four persons have incomes below the poverty line and the average unemployment rate was almost 15% in 2009 (when the most recent data was collected).
These counties are typically rural and one-third are majority African American, yet only three percent of all counties in the United States have a population that is majority African-American. Half of the residents in these counties are either children or seniors.
The executive summary of the report features additional information that describes how Latinos and American Indians are disproportionately affected by high rates of hunger and high food prices.