An estimated 1.6 million North Carolinians–nearly 1 in 5–struggled with limited or uncertain access to food at some point in 2009, according to a national study released yesterday by Feeding America, a nonprofit hunger-relief organization. Action for Children North Carolina shared the following information.
“These data offer an important glimpse into hunger at the community-level in North Carolina,” said Laila Bell, Research and Data Director at Action for Children North Carolina, a statewide research and advocacy organization that tracks quantitative indicators of child well-being through the KIDS COUNT project. “Previous research has shown when individuals and families struggle to put food on the table it is children, our most vulnerable population, who are disproportionately affected.”
The report, Mapping the Meal Gap, used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and administrative sources to generate state- and community-level estimates of the number of people facing food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as the lack of access to nutritionally adequate foods for all household members.
Food insecurity affects a range of households in North Carolina, not just the poorest. In fact, 35 percent of food insecure North Carolinians earned too much to qualify for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), a national program that helps low-income families bridge the gaps in their household food budgets.
In five North Carolina counties, one in four residents faced food insecurity:
- Edgecombe: 27.6% (14,520 people)
- Scotland: 27.6 % (10,050 people)
- Vance: 25.8% (11,080)
- Warren: 25.3% (4,940 people)
- Halifax: 25.3% (13,940 people)
The report also illuminates community-level disparities in food access and price. In 2009, the average cost of a meal in North Carolina was $2.49, but meal prices varied among counties, ranging from 90 percent of the state average ($2.23) in Rutherford and Lenoir counties to 123 percent ($3.06) in Dare county.
Food insecurity also means missed meals. During 2009, hungry North Carolinians missed more than 275 million meals. The report estimates that an additional $687.2 million would have been needed by food insecure individuals to ensure that no meals were missed.
American Indian, African American and Hispanic communities are at disproportionate risk of food insecurity due, in part, to higher-than-average poverty and unemployment rates that reduce economic security and undermine families’ ability to afford food. Robeson county was cited in the report as one of 11 counties in the nation with both a large American Indian population (36 percent) and high rates of food insecurity (23 percent).
Families facing food insecurity must prioritize low-cost foods, and cheap meals tend to pack high calories but low nutritional value. As a result, children in food insecure households also face heightened risk of childhood obesity.
“Poor nutrition has been shown to influence health and well-being throughout life, beginning even before birth,” said Bell. “The ability to access routine, nutritious meals is essential for healthy physical and cognitive development. Poor maternal and child nutrition has been linked to low birthweight, a heightened risk of infant mortality and reduced educational and economic outcomes later in life.”
These data come at a time when lawmakers at the state and federal levels are deciding whether to fully fund a cadre of programs serving children who are typically at-risk of hunger.
“These data demonstrate the need for continued interventions to combat the additional challenges children experience as a result of food insecurity,” added Bell. “Without programs like SNAP, WIC, school-day, afterschool and summer feeding programs, as well as health insurance, high-quality early education, and prevention and intervention services, many children in North Carolina would lack important building blocks necessary for proper growth.”
Mapping the Meal Gap is available online at http://feedingamerica.org/our-network/the-studies/map-the-gap.aspx