Using maps to illustrate challenges facing American Indian and Alaska Native families is problematic because maps mask a long history of forced removal, land theft, and the marginalization of indigenous and tribal communities. But recently released county-level food insecurity maps from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap project reveal critical problems in these communities: the high percentages of American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) households that have trouble getting enough to eat, and the health problems that can result.
The newly released estimates, based on 2014 data, show rates of county-level food insecurity, which is defined as limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Among all 3,142 US counties, Apache County, Arizona—which includes parts of the Navajo Nation, Fort Apache, and Zuni reservations—has the highest child food insecurity rate in the nation. At 42 percent, it is almost double the national rate.
Not far behind is the Wade Hampton Census Area (renamed in 2015 to the Kusilvak Census Area) in Alaska, which has a child food insecurity rate of approximately 40 percent.
AIANs of all ages are also at higher risk of food insecurity than the general population. While less than 1 percent of counties (26 counties) in the United States have a majority AIAN population, nearly 60 percent of these counties (15 counties) are among those with the highest food-insecurity rates in the nation (defined as overall food insecurity rates among the top 10 percent).
Higher food prices could be partially to blame. The average price of a meal in AIAN-majority counties is higher than the US average. The Map the Meal Gap project uses food price data from the Nielsen Company to estimate geographic differences in food costs. Across all US counties, the average meal price in 2014 was $2.82. In AIAN-majority counties, it was $3.18 and was as high as $4.14 in the Nome and Wade Hampton census areas in Alaska.
Food insecurity, health problems, and economic distress
Food insecurity is a symptom of economic distress, including unemployment and underemployment, poverty, and low assets. Not surprisingly, AIAN counties also have disproportionately high levels of poverty, with an average 2014 poverty rate of 32 percent, which is double the national average. In 2014, the average unemployment rate for AIAN-majority counties was 10.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with a US annual average of 6.2 percent.
Food insecurity leads to short- and long-term health problems that can impair household and community resilience. In AIAN communities, food insecurity intersects with other significant health disadvantages. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of diagnosed diabetes of any racial and ethnic group in the country (15.9 percent versus 9.3 percent of all Americans). Diabetes is found at higher rates in food-insecure populations, and the inability to afford a healthy diet hinders effective management of the illness.
These same communities also struggle with high rates of suicide, as reflected in recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Among AIANs ages 15 through 34, suicide rates are 1.5 times higher than the national average. While the causes of such high levels of mental distress are multifaceted, food insecurity has been associated with maternal depression and higher rates of behavioral health challenges in adolescents.
While maps provide clues, they cannot tell the complex story of food insecurity and the broader challenges facing American Indians and Alaska Natives, and thus, our nation as a whole. Unfortunately, the story of food insecurity in AIAN communities is not new. What would be new is a full-court press to tackle the problem and its root causes.