March 24, 2011 -- 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.
Many Insecure Not Eligible for Government Assistance
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.
Previously released data from the USDA show that two groups are at highest risk for food insecurity: adults ages 60 to 65 who are jobless but not eligible for Social Security and children, especially on weekends and during the summers. More than 17 million children are food insecure, but the USDA found that only 2 million used the Summer Food Service Program in 2005.
No Easy Answer, But Education is Key
Those who don't qualify for assistance programs should take advantage of other resources that may be available in the community.
"Church programs and local food banks are two options but more needs to be done to supply the working poor with better access to food as well as quality food," said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "Families also need to be sure their children use school meal benefits. If children consume these two meals at school families can use limited funds to ensure an adequate dinner meal."
There's also a need to educate people about ways to incorporate healthier foods into their regular diets.
"Some of the most nutritious foods are extremely inexpensive, such as beans and lentils, for instance," said Katz. If lower-income people ate some of these foods, he said, they could be well-nourished and maintain a healthy weight.
Eating healthy on a very tight budget often requires changing habits, which can be difficult.
"There is no money for eating out," said Ayoob. "Sometimes, it's a hard concept for people to grasp, especially if they are new to being food insecure, but it's something that's necessary to accept if they are to stretch their food dollars."
He also said while a dozen eggs and a gallon of low-fat milk may seem expensive, the cost per glass is only about 25 cents and the cost of two eggs just 30 cents, "making the main dish for a family of four cost about $1.20, and it's incredibly nutrient rich." The average cost of a meal, according to the Map the Meal report, is $2.54.
"There is no 'one size fits all' solution for hunger," said the report's authors. "As food insecurity looks different from county to county, so do the solutions. The best way to help people facing hunger is to understand who is hungry and why they are hungry at the community level."