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Food hard to come by for some local residents

By Hannah Meisel/For CU-CitizenAccess/ For the past month, the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen at 124 W. White Street in Champaign and other local food pantries have been Katara Raab’s only means of feeding herself and her two-year-old son.

Raab was homeless, bouncing around from place to place every few nights. To make matters worse, she had not received her monthly Link card because the paperwork never came in the mail.  (The Link card makes it possible for her to buy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.) Raab may not receive her next Link card for another month.

She recently found housing in Champaign, but she still relies on soup kitchens and food pantries to meet her food needs.

“It is our breakfast and our lunch,” Raab said.

About 15 percent of Champaign County’s population struggles with hunger issues, according to a study released last month by Feeding America. 

The study, titled “Map the Meal Gap", is intended to help educate citizens about the nation’s hunger problem and to shape policy as well.

"Food insecurity is the leading nutritional related public health challenge in the U.S., more important than obesity and all other issues,” said Dr. Craig Gunderson, associate professor in ACES and Executive Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

Gundersen served as lead researcher for "Map the Meal Gap". The study examined food insecurity rates at the state level and combined this information with local  data to estimate food insecurity rates for individuals at the county level.

Food insecurity has been defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in a socially acceptable way,” according to a 1991 study by S.A. Anderson.

That definition has stayed consistent over the past 20 years in research on food insecurity.

The study also examined food-budget shortfall, cost-of-food index, and national average meal cost.  "Map the Meal Gap" was funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Nielsen Co.

According to the study, about 14.7 percent of the population in Illinois is food insecure, or about 1,873,010 people. The percentage is slightly higher In Champaign County – about 15.8 percent, or about 30,370 people.

“The primary cause of food insecurity is economic instability,” said Cheryl Precious, director of development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. “Most of the time if you're food insecure it's because you don't have enough income to provide food for your family, but sometimes a household issue arises and puts a sudden strain on a family.”

Precious said medical emergencies and the loss of jobs were the most common causes for sudden economic instability that leads to food insecurity.

Gundersen’s research focuses on the causes of food insecurity, in addition to evaluation of food assistance programs, food assistance participation, and childhood obesity.

Between 2007 and 2008, Gundersen said, food insecurity increased dramatically in the United States, going  from 10 percent to 13 percent.

Gundersen said the surprising thing about this statistic is that the increase of food insecurity was greater than increase of poverty or other measures of well-being. He said food insecurity has continued to rise, although 2010 results have not yet been released.

Many resources are available to people who face food insecurity, Gundersen said. He said SNAP was “one of the key tools we have to eliminate food insecurity.”

Gundersen also said the National School Lunch Program, or NSLP, is a safety net against hunger.

Like many other areas of Illinois and the U.S., Champaign County has more informal networks of food distribution such as food banks and food pantries.

Gundersen said these programs have a profound impact in helping alleviate food insecurity, because not every person who is food insecure necessarily qualifies for assistance programs such as SNAP or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the food assistance program for pregnant women, new mothers and children up to five years of age.

Much research in food insecurity has focused on impoverished groups, which tend to be overrepresented by minority groups, Precious said.

Since 2001, Precious said, the Eastern Illinois Foodbank has seen a 13 percent increase in the number of Hispanic clients who are served indirectly through food assistance and other food pantries.

Food Science professor Dr. Sharon Donovan has focused her research on the food insecurity of children.  Donovan said she did not want to generalize, but said that food insecurity was linked to poverty levels of minority groups.

"Generally we do see a correlation with childhood obesity with underrepresented minority groups," Donovan said. 

Donovan said this was due to many factors such as genetic disposition, but a big part can be environmental factors such as nutrition or lack of physical activity. 

This lack of nutrition is referred to as lack of micronutrients. 

Donovan said while less nutritious foods may provide adequate calories, many diets are missing nutrients like calcium and iron.

Precious said it is increasingly common that individuals on food assistance must choose between buying and eating enough food and eating food that will fulfill every micronutrient need.

“Healthy food is expensive—that’s something we hear a lot from agencies and clients,” Precious said.  “A mom of four makes one shopping trip a month and all the money is gone.  The last thing she will buy is fresh fruits and vegetables.  The sad reality is it’s so much cheaper to buy a ten-pack of Ramen noodles than to buy fixings to make a salad.  [Nutrition is] certainly an issue we struggle with.”

Dr. Juan Andrade, Assistant Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said he does not understand why healthier food is so much more expensive than non-nutritionally dense food.  He cited white flour as an example.

“White flour has gone through a more extensive extraction to get that flour out of wheat,” Andrade said.  “Whole wheat has gone through less processing, but is more expensive.  I have very little knowledge of why this food is cheaper; it makes you wonder.”

Andrade said time is also a factor for modern families.  He said the reality is that, particularly in low-income minority families, both parents, if present, work and do not have time to cook a nutritious meal.

"They go for processed foods high in calories like pasta mixed with meats," Andrade said.  "It's convenient, tastes good, is easy to make and most of time [impoverished] families have access to microwave."

Raab said she has never had trouble getting a balanced diet from food assistance programs in Champaign-Urbana.

“The food pantries are usually pretty good about giving fruits and vegetables, salad mixes, that kind of thing,” Raab said.  “They do also have easy quick foods like canned pastas, boxed meals, but the pantries give a nice balance.”

Precious said that while the foodbank monitors the nutritional value of the food distributed to other food pantries, the organization is in no position to be the “food police.”

“Food insecurity is the leading nutrition-related public health challenge in the United States,” Andrade said. “We need to take this seriously, and it’s within our power to address food insecurity. We can eradicate hunger in the United States.”


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