Urban Wire Tackling Food Insecurity in Different Places Requires Thinking beyond Food
Cary Lou
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Donations and charitable contributions surge during the November and December holiday months. For the many millions of Americans who are food insecure each year, these contributions can help put a holiday meal on the table.

Food insecurity is detrimental to the health and development of people of all ages. Dietary deficiencies can impede children’s capacity to learn and adults’ ability to earn a living or parent effectively. The holidays can also add stress and financial obligations that stretch families’ resources.

Although food insecurity is a common challenge, it isn’t the same everywhere, and underlying issues and challenges beyond food are important to consider when trying to address the problem.

A number of factors, including those related to the affordability and adequacy of housing, employment and income, financial health, physical health, insurance coverage, structural issues, and geographic barriers (PDF) can contribute to the likelihood that people experience food insecurity and the severity of food insecurity. Vulnerabilities in these interrelated domains can have a cascading effect on people’s ability to work or bring in resources for food and other necessities.

Our recently released Disrupting Food Insecurity dashboard provides data on food insecurity and related factors at the national, state, and county level.

The dashboard sorts counties into peer groups based on their similarities across these characteristics. This information can help residents, policymakers, advocates, service providers, and other stakeholders better understand the different sets of challenges and opportunities facing their communities.

map 1

Counties sorted into high–food insecurity groups tend to be concentrated in the South, and low–food insecurity groups tend to be in states in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Great Plains regions. Yet there is still great diversity within different geographic areas.

Food insecurity affects every community. States and regions with the most counties in high–food insecurity groups also contain counties in low–food insecurity groups and vice versa. Similarly, counties in high– and low–food insecurity peer groups are often right beside each other.

For example, Saline County, Arkansas, is grouped with other low–food insecurity counties, though the state has above-average food insecurity. Neighboring Hot Spring County is grouped with high–food insecurity rural counties facing a variety of economic challenges.

map 2

In the screenshot above, Saline County is blue with a bold, black outline (low food insecurity, high-resilience peer group), and Hot Spring County is directly south in orange with a bold, black outline (high food insecurity, with economic challenges peer group).

Grant County, Arkansas, to the east of Hot Spring County, falls somewhere in between the other two on the food insecurity and resilience spectrum.

Additionally, groups of counties with lower or moderate food insecurity often face other challenges, such as high housing costs, an aging workforce, or mixed health outcomes. These issues could lead to greater food insecurity and present separate challenges for stability, security, and health.

How can we tackle food insecurity?

Although donations and charitable contributions can help alleviate hunger around the holidays, ensuring all Americans can access and afford adequate and nutritious diets throughout the year requires more than just providing food.

Charitable contributions and federal nutrition programs remain the backbone of efforts to combat hunger and are the first line of defense against food insecurity. Receiving support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program reduces the risk of food insecurity by around 30 percent.

However, solving systemic food insecurity requires disrupting the root causes of economic distress by finding and implementing sustainable, long-run solutions.

The dashboard’s county groupings also allow for communities to find and connect with similar communities beyond their immediate neighbors to learn from one another on common obstacles, determine what they can do to overcome them, and implement successful initiatives and approaches. Along with shared characteristics, each group of peer counties has a tailored collection of strategies (PDF) that can help address common issues and challenges.

The holidays are a time for us to stop, reflect, and help those struggling to make ends meet. Americans can also take the opportunity to explore food insecurity in their communities, learn how other factors might affect the story, and see how they can help tackle the underlying issues to change the narrative.

Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Welfare and safety net programs Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Food insecurity and hunger Hunger and food assistance
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population