Hungry In America

Jun 12, 2015

Food Insecurity Takes its Toll in Missouri

Melissa is 62 years old, lives in New York and has a bachelor’s degree. She used to be a substance abuse counselor, but when the program went bankrupt, the checks stopped coming. She originally found out about the neighborhood food pantry from her job. It was the same place she referred countless clients. “I never thought I would be the one coming here,” she said.

Melissa’s story is a familiar one, as 1 in 10 Americans above the poverty line is “food insecure.” In 2011, 50 million U.S. citizens lived in food insecure households, unable to afford adequate food for themselves or their families, reports the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. Of that number, 17 million people lived in households classified as having “very low food security.” This means they often had to skip meals, reduce meal size or go without food for a day or more, according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report, Household Food Insecurity.

Hearing about hunger in America is nothing new. However, the increasing number of hungry Americans has been mounting since the economic downturn. The USDA reports that between 2007 and 2011, the number of people who could not afford adequate food grew by nearly 14 million.

Obese and food insecure
Despite its prevalence, food insecurity often remains invisible in the U.S. Some policy experts mistakenly correlate obesity with having more than enough to eat. However, research paints a different picture: Food insecurity and obesity can coexist in the same individual. (Food Research & Action Center: Hunger and Obesity? Making the Connections)

Studies reveal that food insecurity strongly correlates with rates of obesity, suggesting that the two are closely connected. The Food Research & Action Center reports that a lack of economic and physical access to healthful foods can make people vulnerable to both food insecurity and obesity. Three dollars buys almost 4,000 calories of unhealthy food, like soda and chips, but only 300 calories of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Hungry children
Between 1999 and 2011, the number of children living in food insecure households increased by 37 percent, for a total of 16.6 million children. According to a report by Feeding America that focused on the impact of food insecurity, children who experience chronic hunger are also significantly more likely to experience behavioral  problems and more likely to need mental health counseling.

If that’s not enough, these children are at a higher risk of dropping out of high school and potentially reducing their lifetime earning potential. “I feel bad when my mom tries to buy me some food and I say, ‘Mom, if you’re not getting yourself something, then I’m not getting anything,’” says 10-year- old, John from Michigan. “I wish I could get a little paper route so I could bring home a check, because sometimes we have a little trouble paying the rent and getting enough food.”

Closer to home
Missouri has the seventh highest rate of food insecurity. This equates to 16.7 percent of Missouri households that are food insecure, including low and very low food security. Of this number, 7.6 percent of Missourians have [very] low food security. Between 2000 and 2012, Missouri had the second highest increase in the rate of food insecurity, at 6.8 percent. Nevada had the highest rate. In “real numbers,” approximately 393,135 households experience food insecurity in the state. This equates to 967,113 people, or nearly 1 in 6 Missourians.

Missouri’s food banks are another case in point. According to the Missouri Food Bank Association (MFBA), the organization’s affiliated food banks distributed over 100 million pounds of food in 2013—the most in the state’s history. Total pounds reached 117,007,189, an increase of nearly 23 percent over 2012. According to Feeding America, that poundage equated to 97,505,980 meals for Missourians.

For many hungry and food insecure Americans, food pantries and food stamps still leave a gap. Most food pantries are open a finite number of days throughout the month and food stamp qualification requirements eliminate many individuals from receiving assistance.
“Food stamps can be pretty hard to get,” said William McKelvey, project coordinator at the University of Missouri Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security. “Families have to qualify by income, but quite often a family’s assets will count against them. You sometimes find this in the case of seniors. They may have very low income, but because they own a house or other assets, they don’t qualify for food stamps…Food stamps are not that easy to get.”

McKelvey discounts some perceptions that people who receive assistance are taking advantage of the system. “What my experience shows, and some of the data out there shows, is those folks who may be taking advantage of the system are clearly in the minority,” he said. “By in large, most people who are seeking out assistance at a food pantry or applying for food stamps, WIC and other programs like that, genuinely need the help and are not choosing to live that lifestyle in order to have someone else support them.”

Seeking assistance
Jim from Sikeston, Mo. is just one case in point. After coming home from the military, he
worked at a service station. Eventually he opened his own garage. He has worked as a mechanic for almost 45 years. He said with the economic downturn and loss of jobs, he saw what was looming ahead. “There was nothing you could do about it,” he said. “This one lady (a customer) told me she was going to come and pay me $100 on a Wednesday, and she didn’t. I really hadn’t had any food and I was hungry. I waited for her and she didn’t show up…I thought well, she’s not coming. I said, ‘I am going to have to do this…’ That’s when I made the decision to go apply for food stamps.

“It’s a learning experience when something like that happens to you, and it’s a humbling experience,” Jim said. “You have to ask for help. A lot of people don’t understand. They say, ‘those bums are living off of this or that.’ They have to feed their families, they [have] to do this. You’ve got to just put your pride aside.”

McKelvey said tackling Missouri’s food insecurity problem will take a variety of private and public approaches. “In general, we ought to be looking at public and private programs to adjust to the needs in our communities,” he said. “I also think that longer term, we ought to make sure that we have strong, public, safety net programs for people who are struggling.”

Earlier this year, the Farm Bill passed with $8 billion in cuts to the food stamp program over 10 years. The measure will affect about 850,000 households across the country.

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Tonia Wright

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