Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report takes studies of food insecurity to the next level. It’s a unique, multi-faceted presentation of the problem that points to changes needed in both poverty measurement and federal anti-hunger policy.
The gap in the title refers to the estimated number of additional meals that people who said they couldn’t always afford to eat would have if they did. The methodology used to calculate the gap is somewhat complicated. So I’ll just refer those interested to the executive summary.
The map is online and interactive, with different shades of green indicating different food insecurity rates in counties across the U.S.
Mouse over it and you get statewide food insecurity rates, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food security report for 2009.
But that’s only the beginning. You also get:
- The number of food insecure people.
- The percentages of food insecurity in three different income bands based on eligibility ceilings for food stamps and for some other federal nutrition assistance programs like WIC.
- The additional funds that would have been needed to provide everyone with enough to eat in 2009.
- The average cost of a meal, based on USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan — the market basket used to determine food stamp benefits.
And you can get these data in print-out form for every county and food bank service area in the country. Coming soon, I understand, will be the same data for each Congressional district.
All this detail yields some important insights.
- Food insecurity is everywhere — not just in the states or areas within states that we’re accustomed to thinking of as poor.
- A large percentage of food insecure people aren’t eligible for federal nutrition assistance programs — a nationwide average of 29% in 2009.
- People may be food insecure even with food stamps in part because the Thrifty Food Plan market basket costs considerably more in some places than the average nationwide.
- For somewhere around $22 billion a year we could provide everyone in the country with enough to eat.
The state and county-level information should help policymakers target their efforts. Also advocates, the network of food banks that Feeding America supplies and the pantries, dining rooms and other programs that get food from the banks.
There are also several lessons — most not new — for policymakers at the federal level.
First off, we urgently need a final, more realistic poverty measure. How can a family be well above the federal poverty line if they can’t afford enough to eat?
But the new poverty measure shouldn’t just be, as now envisioned, an alternative tool for analysis and program assessment. It should be used to define income eligibility criteria for public assistance like food stamps.
Yes, this would be politically dicey. But there’s something fundamentally wrong when more than 14.5 million food insecure people couldn’t qualify for federal food assistance because they were too far above the poverty line that will still be used as a cut-off when the new measure is published.
Yet even many people in the food stamp program now report food insecurity. The latest USDA figures are yet more evidence that the way food stamp benefits are calculated should be changed.
The Food Research and Action Center has recommended ditching the Thrifty Food Plan in favor of USDA’s lowest-cost food budget for normal use. Also cutting the time lag for the annual inflation adjustment so that benefits don’t reflect food prices from as much as 16 months earlier.
Even these relatively modest changes would entail some additional costs. But if the Feeding America meal-gap closing figure is anywhere in the ballpark, the funds needed would be a miniscule fraction of the total federal budget.
Recall that this would still leave the program shy the $11.9 billion that was cut to help pay for last summer’s whittled-down jobs bill.
Will Congress take this minimal step to keep more people from going hungry? Your guess is as good as mine.
But given the current spending cut battle on Capitol Hill, the prospects don’t look rosy.