A study released in March by the hunger relief organization Feeding America estimates that Minnesotans struggling with hunger collectively miss almost 100 million meals each year. The Map the Meal Gap study says, nationwide, hungry people would need $21.3 billion to fill the gap in their food budgets.
Research conducted in Minnesota inspired the nation-wide study. Rob Zeaske and his colleagues at Second Harvest Heartland were looking for a better way to understand who needs help. Feeding America ran with that idea. The national study released late last month does two things that hadn't been done before. It estimates the number of people struggling with hunger in each U.S. county. And it puts a number on how many meals people are missing.
"I would say it's a tool for how people can really understand what are the needs in every community, and how do you actually identify closing the gap around the need," said Vicki Escarra, the CEO of Feeding America.
Feeding America researchers relied on census figures, which show 50.2 million Americans live in homes that struggle to get enough food. They took into account things like poverty and unemployment — and then estimated how many people they think are at risk for hunger in each county. On the census form, people also noted how much money they'd need to adequately feed their families. So researchers looked at how much meals cost in each county. From there, they were able to estimate how many meals people were missing.
While many times people are skipping meals altogether, sometimes they are eating a poor substitute for a meal, like a bag of chips.
According to the study, the five Minnesota counties with the highest rates of people struggling with hunger are Clearwater, Wadena, Mille Lacs, Pine and Kanabec. Second Harvest North Central Food Bank services two of these five counties. One problem in Second Harvest's area is that, according to the Feeding America estimates, 35 percent of the 29,600 individuals struggling with hunger make too much money to qualify for federal food assistance. But they still can't always afford to feed their families. After other bills, there's not much left for food.
An additional challenge that Second Harvest North Central Food Bank faces is the actuality of rural hunger. Rural households all across our seven county region suffer from food insecurity –the statistical measurement of hunger or near-hunger-at greater rate than the rest of the state and nation. A number of factors including increasing unemployment, transportation barriers, and access to grocers, contribute to hunger in our service area. It is a distressing reminder that hunger persists in a state that is a leader in the food production industry.
Second Harvest North Central Food Bank's game plan to fight rural hunger is to: improve access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), extend tax deductions for food donations, and maintain commodity food programs such as TEFAP and CSFP.
We, as members of Feeding America, will continue working to make sure all of Minnesota's 583,710 people who currently struggle with hunger have access to three square meals a day.
For more information on the Map the Meal Gap study, click here.