US Food Insecurity: Findings from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap

Dr. Craig Gundersen

CES Distinguished Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, IL

Food insecurity has emerged as a leading indicator of well-being in the United States. As such, understanding how it varies by geography is central to efforts to alleviate food insecurity and its attendant consequences. Feeding America provides an annual comprehensive picture of this variation through its Map the Meal Gap (MMG) study. Through MMG, one can see how food insecurity rates vary by county, congressional district and state. MMG further breaks down these rates for the full population, for children and by income.

On May 19, 2021, Feeding America released MMG data for 2019, the most up-to-date results available. Most counties in the US have food insecurity rates between four percent and 14 percent, with a national rate of 10.9 percent. COVID-19 likely increased these rates slightly, but Feeding America is projecting increases that are proportionally less than those found during the Great Recession.

However, this average masks extensive variation across the country. For example, many counties in Appalachia, in the Mississippi Delta and adjacent to the Rio Bravo have rates exceeding 20 percent. These areas reflect regional clustering of high rates of food insecurity. In other parts of the country, though, there are islands of high rates of food insecurity. Take the case of North Dakota. Overall, the rate is low, 6.7 percent; however, Rolette, Benson, and Sioux Counties have rates substantially higher food insecurity rates – 15.6 percent, 15.3 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively. All three of these counties include American Indian reservations, which reflects the substantially higher rates of food insecurity among American Indians in comparison to other groups – 24.1 percent versus, for example, 6.2 percent of Asian Americans.

Black people also have substantially higher rates of food insecurity than other racial groups. For example, non-Hispanic Black people have food insecurity rates of 19.2 percent, while non-Hispanic White people have rates of 8.1 percent. But these overall rates by race mask enormous geographic variation. Consider the South. In metro areas, the food insecurity rate of Black people, 17.3 percent, is lower than in any other region of the country and substantially lower than for Black people in the Midwest, 24.1 percent. While Black people in Southern metro areas are better off than counterparts in other regions, food insecurity rates remain high for Black people in rural areas in the South, at 23.5 percent. Overall, there are 104 counties in the US where more than 50 percent of the population is Black. Of these, 66 are in the top 10 percent of all counties in terms of food insecurity; in other words, over half of majority Black counties are some of the most food insecure counties. These results allow us to better understand where to direct the scarce resources of food banks in the Feeding America network to reduce these disparities. In addition, they can help guide research questions as it pertains to racial disparities in the US.

These geographic and racial disparities would be substantially larger if not for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Multiple studies have shown that SNAP recipients are less likely to be food insecure than eligible non-participants. Despite the existence of SNAP, people are food insecure insofar as (a) SNAP benefits may not be high enough to ensure food security, (b) eligible households may not receive SNAP and (c) some households slightly over the threshold for benefits are nevertheless food insecure due to lack of resources, financial and otherwise. In response to this, a recent study examined expansions in eligibility and benefit levels in SNAP and its impact on food insecurity. If maximum benefits were increased by 25 percent and extended to all Americans up to 400 percent of the poverty line (about $100,000 for a family of four), food insecurity would be essentially eliminated in the US. While this is expensive – over $500 billion per year – this is one concrete proposal that would remove food insecurity across our country.

Dr. Craig Gundersen is a FFAR grantee, ACES Distinguished Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a member of the Technical Advisory Group for Feeding America and the lead researcher on Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap project.

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