The percentage of Missourians struggling to put food on the table rose from 8.6 percent to 16 percent over the last decade, according to the 2013 Missouri Hunger Atlas, which MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security recently released.
Sandy Rikoon, director of the Center for Food Security and co-author of the Hunger Atlas, said although the state has seen economic growth in the last 10 years, there are still citizens suffering from hunger.
Many people in Missouri are chronically hungry, Rikoon said.
“It’s not an acute situation where they lost their job,” Rikoon said. “A lot of people who use food pantries are people on disability, the elderly, people working minimum wage jobs. There’s very little hope that their lives will turn around. They’re really chronically in trouble.”
The statewide trend of rising food insecurity matches many other states across the country. Correlating with national research, however, the Hunger Atlas found Missouri experienced the largest increase of food insecure households in the country.
Anne Cafer, a graduate student who worked on the project, said the Hunger Atlas also offers a county-by-county ranking of food insecurity.
“We’re not just an aggregate state,” Cafer said. “We have a lot of diversity within our counties, and we have socioeconomic and cultural elements within those counties that really affect how these programs and federal and state dollars are used.”
Although programs such as food stamps and free and reduced lunches receive funding throughout the state, Cafer said enrollment in said programs must go up in order to prevent hunger.
The Hunger Atlas also rates the performance of food assistance programs, providing the number of people getting help from food stamps or food pantries. Food stamps are more widely used in rural areas compared to suburban and urban areas, according to the Hunger Atlas.
“There can be a stigma attached to (food stamps),” Rikoon said. “In a suburban county, there are a lot of people who need (food stamps), but they’re more diffused throughout the county, so sometimes it’s harder to serve those folks than people where there’s a larger concentration.”
New to this edition of the Hunger Atlas is the measurement of food affordability, which is the percentage of income families must put toward food. Data showed rural counties were hit hard, facing both lower incomes and higher food prices as a result of transportation costs and availability. While households in urban counties spent an average of 10 percent of their income on food, those in rural counties spent up to twice that.
Because of the high cost of food, households experiencing food insecurity often have a higher rate of health issues such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol, Rikoon said.
“If you’re worried about hunger, then you’ve got to meet your calorie needs first,” Rikoon said. “You’re not worried about your nutritional needs. The cheapest food in terms of calorie density are not necessarily very good nutritionally. The chips and the noodles and the pasta that fill your stomach are the first things that people will buy. That can contribute to being overweight and (having) diabetes.”
Because of the numerous health issues associated with hunger, food insecure households are often forced to spend more money on health care and medication. The total cost of hunger expenses, whether in the form of schools aiding children, private charities or hunger-related health costs, totals to $3.6 billion, Rikoon said.
In order to see a turnaround in the state, Rikoon said it is up to both the public and the government. On an individual level, Rikoon said he encourages donating to food banks but keeping nutritious values in mind.
For example, someone could donate protein-rich peanut butter as opposed to carbohydrate-loaded pasta.
Rikoon said it is essential that the state plays a part in reducing food insecurity.
“We can do things individually, but the system itself has to recognize that these folks are caught in a hard place,” Rikoon said. “And if there’s an adequate social net, then that would help free up resources to go toward food.”