A landmark study of hunger in America has revealed a cruel irony: People are going hungry in some of the most fertile, food-producing counties in the United States.
“Map the Meal Gap” compared census and unemployment numbers, along with food costs and other factors, to study, at county level, the intersection of hunger, poverty, food costs and ethnicity. The project was spearheaded by Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks that makes up the largest hunger-relief charity in the United States, and funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and The Nielsen Company.
Among the major findings: A full 44 counties in the United States fall into the top 10 percent categories for both food prices and food insecurity, meaning people there can’t always afford enough food for healthy levels of nutrition.
“The overall message is that high food insecurity rates are due to high poverty rates and high unemployment rates, and in some places they coincide with a high cost for food,” says Craig Gundersen, a University of Illinois associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics who led the data analysis on the project. “It’s not due to high food costs, though. Those tend to be found in wealthy counties.”
The study concluded that closing the “meal gap” so everyone was adequately fed would cost an estimated $21.3 billion a year.
Of the top 50 areas with the largest number of hungry people, one in four counties are at least 33 percent Hispanic. (This in comparison to the half that are majority white, and one in eight that are at least a third African American).
Meanwhile, of the 70 counties in the United States that have majority Latino populations, more than one in four are among those with the highest food insecurity rates. Thirteen of the top 20 are sparsely-populated rural areas in Texas, with the others are located in California, Arizona and New Mexico.
And it’s in California that we see the sharpest contrast between bountiful soil and barren larder: Merced, Fresno and Tulare counties, in California, are among the top five food-producing counties in the country, according to agricultural sales numbers, and are near or over 50 percent Latino. They are also among the top 10 percent of counties where people are going hungry.
“Probably, people in those counties are low-income migrant farm workers, and they’re not eating the food that is grown there,” says Gundersen. “A lot of that food is sold and shipped to be eaten elsewhere.”