While many people may not think much about grabbing a bite to eat, for millions of Americans, it's been a lot harder. A new report shows about 50 million people aren't always sure how they're going to afford their next meal.
According to the Map the Meal Gap report by the hunger relief charity Feeding America, about 15 percent of American households experienced "food insecurity" at some time during 2009, or believed they didn't have enough or couldn't get enough money for food. The report uses food insecurity data gathered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The report provides food insecurity rates for every county and congressional district in the country and also analyzes each county's population to determine whether people are eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs.
"The study is a groundbreaking tool for fighting hunger. It helps us look at the very different face of hunger in each county and congressional district," the authors wrote.
The county with the highest rate of food insecurity is Wilcox County in southwestern Alabama. The counties with the highest numbers of food insecure people are Los Angeles and New York.
Despite the fact that more than 37 percent of residents in Wilcox County are unable to afford enough food to feed their families, nearly 41 percent of them are obese. Nutrition experts say these statistics are not as contradictory as they may seem.
"If people are food insecure, they can often place a priority on obtaining as much food as possible for the cheapest price," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y. So-called "value meals" at fast food restaurants seem like a good option because they offer larger portions for a few more cents.
Food insecurity "tends to result in buying cheap, processed foods richer in calories than nutrients," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Universitiy Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn.
Experts also say that there is no easy way to make healthy food more widely available. In December, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that provides $4.5 billion over the next decade for the government's school nutrition programs. While experts say expanding assistance programs will help, they also stress the need for better education about what programs are available as well as a stronger emphasis on better dietary habits.
Despite the existence of federally funded programs, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) that can help provide food, many people who feel insecure about food don't qualify.
"Based on national averages, about 29 percent of food insecure individuals are above 185 percent of the poverty line and are typically ineligible for most food assistance programs," the authors wrote, an indication that being hungry doesn't mean being poor. Income eligibility for assistance programs varies by state, but is usually closer to 130 to 150 percent above the poverty line of $22,350 for a family of four, except for Alaska where it's $27,940 and Hawaii, $25,710.