A new study on hunger entitled "Map the Meal Gap" is the first study to identify the county-level distribution of over 50 million food-insecure Americans.
"Until now, we could only compare the data by state," explains Craig Gundersen, University of Illinois associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics and executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory, which led the data analysis on the project. "Having this data by county has the potential to redefine the way service providers and policy makers address areas of need."
Gundersen says that the term "meal gap" refers to the additional number of meals the food insecure population in the selected area requires to meet their food needs. On the national level, the average cost of a meal is $2.54. The study shows this shortfall represents an estimated $21.3 billion on an annual basis.
"Per person this is only about $56 more each month on average to address the shortages in their food budget," Gundersen notes.
Among the key findings of the study is that there are 44 counties in the U.S. that fall into the top 10% categories for both food insecurity and food prices. "These counties struggle with multiple stressors, including high food insecurity, high poverty, high unemployment and above-average food costs," Gundersen adds. At the time the most recent data were collected, on average, one in every four persons in these counties was food insecure and 27% lived at or below poverty. The counties are typically rural and one-third are majority African American.
This study also demonstrates the distribution of food-insecure persons who are not eligible for food assistance programs. In Illinois, for example, 41% of the almost 2 million people who are identified as being food insecure are also ineligible to receive federal assistance from SNAP, which is limited to people with incomes up to the 130% level of federal poverty. (SNAP, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.)
A summary of the findings, an interactive map of the United States showing data for each county, and the full report are available on Feeding America's website at www.feedingamerica.org. The study was funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Nielsen Co.