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New study shows county-level food gaps

More than 30,000 Champaign County residents are food insecure, according to a report released Thursday from Feeding America.

Feeding America is the nation’s largest food charity and comprises a network of more than 200 foodbanks. The “Map the Meal Gap” project analyzed federal income data and food costs among counties nationwide to better determine who may be food insecure.

Food insecurity means that a person or family lacks access, at times, to enough nutritional food for all household members, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A person or family may not stay food insecure, but occasionally experience food insecurity.

“Map the Meal Gap,” provides insight for the first time about the number of meals missing from the tables of America’s hungry each year – an estimated 13.2 million in the 14-county area served by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank out of a total of 8.4 billion nationwide.

According to USDA data, people in the Foodbank’s 14-county area who are struggling with hunger estimate they need about $52 more per person per month, a regional total of $31.5 million, to address the shortages in their food budget. On a national level, “Map the Meal Gap” shows this shortfall represents an estimated $21.3 billion on an annual basis.

By the numbers

In Champaign:

15.8 percent of residents or 30,370 people are food insecure

40 percent of these residents make more than 185 percent of the poverty level and therefore do not qualify for any food assistance programs

Average cost of the meal is $2.38

In Illinois:

14.7 percent of residents or 1.8 million people are food insecure

42 percent of these residents make more than 185 percent of the poverty level and therefore do not qualify for any food assistance programs

Average cost of the meal is $2.35

Source:Map the Meal Gap

In a departure from the standard of measuring meals in pounds, “Map the Meal Gap” estimates the relative cost of a meal. In eastern Illinois, an average food secure household spends approximately $2.39 per person per meal.

The study further analyzes each county’s food insecure population to determine their income eligibility for federal nutrition assistance. According to the study, 54 percent of food insecure individuals in eastern Illinois are likely ineligible to receive SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps). This reveals the important role of the emergency food network (foodbanks and the agencies they serve) in reaching food insecure families that are not eligible to receive other sources of aid.

“The Eastern Illinois Foodbank and our member agencies operate as part of a vast safety net for hungry families,” said Jim Hires, executive director of the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. “We’ve known for a long time that the work of our agencies makes a tremendous impact in our area, but this data really underscores the importance of that work in conjunction with federal programs.”

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank provides food to more than 220 agencies and programs serving the hungry across its 14-county territory. It also operates supplemental programs to respond to unmet needs, including outreach work to help families enroll in SNAP, mobile food pantry (“Foodmobile”) distributions in rural areas, and the BackPack Program, part of the Foodbank’s Healthy Futures Initiative to increase nutritious food distributed to kids. 

“This new data will help us identify specific communities, initiatives, and strategies to more effectively address food insecurity in our region,” Hires added.

“Map the Meal Gap” provides the following data for each county in the United States in an interactive map format available online:

·         The percentage of the population who is food insecure.

·         The percentage of the food insecure population who qualify based on income for SNAP (Foods Stamps) and other federal nutrition programs.

·         The percentage of the food insecure population who do NOT qualify for federal nutrition programs and often must rely on charitable food assistance programs and who also need better wages and employment opportunities to help them meet their basic needs.

·         The average price per meal in each county, based on new research by The Nielsen Company, using the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan.”

The findings of “Map the Meal Gap” are based on statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and food price data from The Nielsen Company. The study was funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Nielsen. A University of Illinois researcher, Dr. Craig Gundersen of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics, was a chief contributor to the data analysis. Gundersen is also Executive Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory and member of Feeding America’s Technical Advisory Group.

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.