Mapping The Disturbingly High Rates Of Food Insecurity In America

For the poor, food access is not a given–even in some of the most agriculturally rich places in the country.

America continues to have a lot of hungry people. Some statistics may have improved since the recession. But the nation’s level of food insecurity–defined as lacking “access to enough food for an active, healthy life”–hasn’t got much better. In 2008, the rate jumped to 16% nationally, from 12% the year before. And it’s still near that level–15%, according to the latest figures.


A new report from the Feeding America food bank network maps where this food insecurity is greatest and least. It ranges from 38% in Jefferson County, Mississippi to about 4% in Loudoun County, Virginia, with the highest rates generally in the south and southeast.

“While unemployment has gone down to 5%, we’re still finding that food insecurity is still at similar levels to the peak of the recession,” says Diana Aviv, Feeding America’s CEO. “Even people working full-time on minimum wages are not making enough money to cover all their living expenses.”

Food insecurity isn’t always directly related to poverty. It’s also a function of whether people can access federal programs like SNAP (food stamps), Aviv says, and there are many places where eligible people don’t have access. One food bank recently stopped taking stamps because it was told it could be sued if any recipient gave false information on an application. Other times, people won’t access programs because they’re too busy with work, or they need to be assisted through the application process.

The greatest number of food insecure people tend to be in urban counties, such as L.A. or New York. But, among counties with the highest food insecurity rates, rural areas account for more than half. The rural-poor face additional hurdles in transport and access to grocery stores, Aviv says.

The maps for child food insecurity (see here) show a more dispersed problem compared to the national ones. Overall, more than 15 million kids don’t always have enough to eat. Mississippi has the highest rate, at 27%; North Dakota the lowest, at 11%. Apache County, Arizona, has the highest single county rate, at 42%.

Two counties in the top-10% for child food insecurity–Fresno and Imperial, in California–are also in the top 10% for agricultural sales–a somewhat sickening contrast between abundance and scarcity.


Of course, there’s no shortage of food to go around. We waste anything up to 40% of everything grown in this country. The question, as this report explored, is how to get more of it to the people who need it. Feeding America is working on it–it just signed a big agreement with Starbucks, for instance, to divert its food to food banks. But more such partnerships are needed.

Cover Photo: Flickr user Thirteen Of Clubs


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.