Food insecurity: Hunger isn't subsiding; families haven't recovered lost wealth, say studies | St. Louis Public Radio

Food insecurity: Hunger isn't subsiding; families haven't recovered lost wealth, say studies

Jun 13, 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - More than 300,000 Missouri children are "food insecure,” and summer brings challenges for the programs trying to help feed them, according to two hunger studies released this week.

Those are just two of the local findings from national research on food insecurity – a problem that is not subsiding, four years into the nation’s economic recovery.

Fifty million people -- including 17 million children -- are living in U.S. households that are food insecure, according to the national "Map the Meal Gap” report from Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks, including the St. Louis Area Foodbank, that serves about 37 million people every year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a household's limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

The national food insecurity rate remained at 16 percent, unchanged between 2010 and 2011, according to the report, which is based on data from 2011 released last fall by the USDA. "Map the Gap" quantifies hunger at the county level – in the general population and also among children under 18.

In areas with the highest food insecurity rates, the economic indicators that influence food insecurity -- such as unemployment and poverty -- remained at near record levels during the period, the report noted.

Researchers found that a one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 0.63 percentage point increase in the overall food insecurity rate, while a percentage point increase in poverty leads to a 0.21 increase in food insecurity.

One interesting finding: Nearly 60 percent of people struggling with hunger have incomes above the federal poverty level, while nearly 60 percent of poor households are food secure. Food insecurity is, in fact, affected by several factors including income, race, geography and food prices.

According to data from the St. Louis area:

  • St. Louis had the highest overall rate of food insecurity -- one in four residents. St. Charles County had the lowest rate -- one in 10 residents.
  • In Jefferson, St. Clair and Madison counties, one in five children under age 18 (20 percent) qualified as food insecure. In St. Louis, the rate was 24 percent for children.
  • Overall, Missouri had a food insecurity rate of 17 percent, with a children’s rate of 23 percent. That compares to an overall rate of 15 percent in Illinois and 23 percent for children.

Going without lunch when school is out

A second national report -- "Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation” by the Food Research and Action Center -- suggests that thousands of eligible poor children in Missouri were not participating in summer nutrition programs intended to fill the gap when school is out and the federally funded lunch program is not available. These programs are offered at schools, parks, public agencies and at nonprofits.

In this photo from 2010, a truck from the St. Louis Area Food Bank makes a delivery at a rural southern Illinois church that was holding a food fair for low-income residents.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon

The analysis found that 28,425 Missouri children were receiving free summer meals on an average day in July 2012, in contrast to the 359,130 Missouri children in the school lunch program during the 2011-12 school year. Low participation in the summer translates to added financial strains on low-income families and, in some cases, to missed meals, according to the researchers.

The programs, which are offered at hundreds of locations in Missouri, are an important resource for poor families, said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare. 

"It’s pretty common for families on food stamps only to have enough to cover several weeks and then they would need help, such as from a food pantry,” she said. "If kids can continue to get some nutrition from a summer program, it really helps a family’s food budget out. It also means that children have access to healthy foods.”

Oxford said that it’s a challenge in the summertime to reach eligible children, but she was surprised that participation in Missouri had declined from the previous year. Missouri’s participation rate of about 8 children for every 100 who participated in the school lunch program was worse than the national rate of about 14 children in 100 who received lunch.

According to the report, the USDA is attempting to increase participation in the summer programs by raising awareness and reducing administrative barriers for sites and sponsors to participate.

Oxford said that if Missouri could boost its participation rate to 40 children for every 100 children who qualify for school lunches, 115,227 more children would be fed -- and the $8 million cost would be funded by federal dollars.

She said that poor families often face barriers that prevent them from participating in beneficial programs – what she describes as the “chaos of poverty.”

"If you get an eviction notice or utility disconnection, it can throw your family into crisis in a way that means it’s hard to keep your regular schedule,” she said. "Often there are transportation challenges -- whether children live in a rural area where there is no public transportation or they live in a city where the buses may not run on a schedule that works with what the person needs.”

What about the recovery?

Researchers at the Center for Household Financial Stability at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, who have been studying the balance sheets of U.S. households, say the bottom line is this: The nation’s economic recovery is uneven and not as robust as it might appear, when looking at the upturn in the stock market and recent gains in housing.

"It’s a very uneven recovery,’’ said Ray Boshara, senior adviser at the St. Louis Fed. "We’re talking about a large swath of the American population that has not fully recovered. That certainly matters for food stamps, food assistance, food insecurity and a whole range of other things.”

In their June report, "Still Digging Out,” the Fed researchers noted that the real net worth of households has rebounded by 63 percent since hitting bottom in early 2009. The aggregate net worth of all U.S. households reached an all-time peak of $70.3 trillion at the end of the first quarter of this year, but the analysts found that the recovery of household wealth remains incomplete after they adjusted for inflation and population growth.

"We’ve long known that families lost a lot in the recession -- that almost all families suffered. But there was a perception that there had been a full recovery,” said Boshara.

The center’s research found that while wealth losses during the recession were significant for all families, the greatest impact was on nonwhite families with little education -- and younger families.

"Those groups that lost the most amount of wealth in the recession are going to have the hardest time recovering that wealth going forward,’’ Boshara said. "If you look at families who are older, better educated, white or Asian, they’ve recovered most of their wealth and in fact are doing pretty well. A lot of their wealth is in stocks, which have done well in the last couple of years, but also they’re not overinvested in homeownership, which tends to be a trait of the more vulnerable families.’’

Boshara, who does not speak for the Federal Reserve, said families who are most likely to be seeking economic assistance are the families who have had the weakest recovery of wealth. He believes the disparity of recovery among U.S. households will hold back the overall economic recovery.

"Whether families are 55 percent or 65 percent recovered, or whatever the number might be, there’s a long way to go before families have fully recovered all the wealth they lost from the recession -- and that has not only macroeconomic significance but real implications for the families,’’ he said.

Economist William Emmons, an assistant vice president at the St. Louis Fed, said American families fall into three groups based upon the degree of their economic recovery:

  • Those who have recovered their wealth. (They tend to be highly educated, whites, Asians, middle-aged and older Americans.)
  • Those who have stabilized their situation since the downturn. (A broad group of families.)
  • Those who are still losing ground. (They tend to be younger, less educated and minorities.)

Emmons said that the people who are still losing ground lost the most in the recession for a variety of reasons, including a lack of economic diversification (their homes were their main investments), debt load and tenuous ties to the job market.

"Just everything wrong happened,” he said. "That group is still losing ground because the job market is not good, house prices are not coming back in depressed areas -- unless it’s investors looking for a quick turn. The families in those neighborhoods I wouldn’t say have stabilized.’’

Boshara said their findings on household wealth are important for nonprofits who assist struggling families and also for policymakers who want to better match need and resources.

"Before the recession, public policy was generous to people who already had healthy balance sheets, and it made them healthier,'' Boshara said. "You can argue that recovery itself -- whether through Congress or the Fed -- has largely been directed at families who were probably going to do OK on their own in terms of recovering their wealth. We think a very important message here is can we think differently about policy affecting the families who are most vulnerable, most at risk and have the greatest need to recover. ‘’ 

Local food insecurity rates 

The 2013 “Map the Meal Gap” report of Feeding America is available on the Feeding America website

St. Louis

  • Overall: 27 percent (population 318,367)
  • Rate for children under 18: 24 percent 

St. Louis County

  • Overall: 16 percent (population 998,760)
  • Children: 15 percent

St. Charles County

  • Overall: 11 percent (population 356,070)
  • Children: 15 percent 

Jefferson County

  • Overall: 13 percent (population 217,531)
  • Children: 20 percent 

St. Clair County, Ill.

  • Overall: 17 percent  (population 268,086)
  • Children: 20 percent

Madison County, Ill.

  • Overall: 12 percent (population 268,473)
  • Children: 20 percent