Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Food insecurity is most prevalent in rural, southern counties—which often lack robust networks to meet the need.
Jefferson County, Mississippi, is home to 7,297 people, and 2,870 of them are hungry. The county’s food insecurity rate, 38 percent, is the highest in the nation, according to the latest Map the Meal Gap report.
The report, released last week by the hunger relief organization Feeding America, collates data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Current Population Survey to stitch together a portrait of food insecurity at the state and county levels. An interactive map tracks the percentage of food-insecure households, average meal cost, residents’ eligibility for assistance programs, and the windfall that would be required to cinch up the gap between meals families need and what they can afford. Nationwide, food-insecure individuals are about $17.38 short of meeting their minimum nutritional needs each week.
On a national level, the data echoes a familiar finding: Some degree of food insecurity cuts across nearly every demographic category. Food insecurity is particularly pernicious in rural America—and especially in southern counties. Of the U.S. counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, 76 percent are rural, and 89 percent are in the South. Eleven of Mississippi’s 82 counties have rates of food insecurity that top 30 percent.
The relationship between geography and hunger is influenced by a constellation of factors, among them household incomes and unemployment. As of the last Census, median household income in Jefferson Country, which is predominantly African American, was $18,447.
There’s some good news in the report as well. The total number of food-insecure Americans has trended downwards, sliding from 50 million in 2009 to 42 million in 2015—the most recent year for which data is available. But hunger-relief infrastructure has still struggled to keep pace with need, particularly in rural and suburban areas.
That’s the case in Rockland County, New York. As Henry Grabar wrote for CityLab in 2016, the affluent county north of New York City has recently seen declining incomes and an uptick in food insecurity. The rate is still relatively low—9.5 percent, according to the Meal Gap report—but the existing food pantries have experienced a surging demand. One local organization went from serving 4,000 residents in 2008 to 15,000 in 2016. Roughly a quarter of those folks are driving in from towns a few miles away.
“You have all the problems of urban hunger, and then you have the physical distance and access problems that are generally less of a problem in compact urban areas,” Joel Berg, the director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a Rockland native, told Grabar. In dense cities, food pantries may be walkable, or accessible via public transit. Rural reaches, on the other hand, may have far-flung resources that are miles away from the residents who seek them.
To bridge that gap, Rockland, like other enclaves, is experimenting with dispersing food via delivery van. Proposals such as First Class Meal, a blueprint for reimagining shuttered post offices as hubs for food storage and distribution around L.A., are also seeking solutions that would convey donated food straight to the families that need it. For now, though, that need persists.