For the thirteenth year, Feeding America has published its landmark research study, Map the Meal Gap, which once again finds that food insecurity exists in all 3,143 counties and county equivalents as well as 436 congressional districts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Map the Meal Gap is the only study that provides local-level estimates of food insecurity and food costs across the United States. This year’s county estimates indicate 12.5 million or 1 in 3 individuals experiencing food insecurity may not be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), after accounting for state-specific gross income limits.
The estimates released reflect data from 2021, a year in which SNAP benefits increased by 20% for recipients. SNAP Emergency Allotments that have now expired, the adjustments to the Thrifty Food Plan, and other supports, like the Child Tax Credit which ended at the close of 2021, all reduced poverty and were critical in supporting our neighbors in need. The enhanced benefit levels, along with other social supports, were likely reasons why food insecurity for the overall population reached historically low levels.
“In 2021, we saw food insecurity decline due in great part to an unprecedented response from the charitable food sector and government nutrition programs,” said Tom Summerfelt, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer of Feeding America. “A strong public and private response to the pandemic helped mitigate national food insecurity from rising significantly in 2020, with many of those response efforts continuing in 2021. This release of Map the Meal Gap comes at a critical time, as most COVID-era programs that supported those in need have now expired. That, coupled with elevated levels of inflation, maybe a recipe for food insecurity to increase again if we don’t expand efforts to ensure everyone has access to the food and resources they need to thrive.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Household Food Security in the United States 2021 report found that 34 million people, including nearly 9 million children lived in food-insecure households. Map the Meal Gap uses the most recent historical data from the USDA, U.S. Census Bureau, and Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate local food insecurity and related measures at the county, congressional district, and state levels. The study also estimates local meal costs using food price data from NIQ and grocery sales tax data for every county and state in the country. Map the Meal Gap shows that though food insecurity exists in every county, the percentage of the population estimated to be food insecure ranges from a low of 2% in Griggs County, North Dakota up to nearly 26% in places like Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska. Child food insecurity rates range from less than 1% in Forsyth County, Georgia to 43% in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana. The study also includes food insecurity rates for several racial and ethnic groups at the local level and reveals that disparities can vary greatly by population and place.
With the upcoming Farm Bill, there has been a renewed national focus on policies supporting food assistance programs. SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger, yet availability can vary in part by state income thresholds, which range from 130% to 200% of the federal poverty line (between $39,000 to $60,000 for a family of four as of January 2023). As such, county estimates indicate that, on average, 1 in 3 individuals who live in food-insecure homes may not be eligible for SNAP. People with lived experience have shared their perspectives on the value of expanded SNAP benefits. As part of Feeding America’s Elevating Voices listening initiative last year, one individual shared they are looking for, "access to fresh, local foods, especially fruits and vegetables at a lower cost. Food costs have gone up 50-70% over just a few months ago. Being on SNAP and losing the additional emergency funding we had been getting when inflation is so high has been devastating. Where we once were food secure being on benefits, that is no longer the case." Feeding America urges members of Congress to help ensure people have access to the food they need by streamlining the enrollment process and removing the administrative hurdles, and not introducing new eligibility barriers to the program in the 2023 Farm Bill.
Of the 34 million people experiencing food insecurity in the U.S., 13.3 million are white, 9.7 million are Latino, 8 million are Black, and 2.8 million are Native Americans, Asian American, and Pacific Islanders or multiple races. While nearly 40% of the food insecure population in the U.S. is white, Black, Native American, and Latino individuals are 2 to over 3 times more likely to live in food insecure households. Among counties where data are available to compare, food insecurity among Black and Latino individuals is higher than among white, non-Hispanic individuals in nearly every case. These disparities range in magnitude. In some counties, Black and Latino individuals experience food insecurity at a rate over 10 times that of white, non-Hispanic individuals.
“Map the Meal Gap is the only study that offers our food banks and policymakers localized data, providing them with valuable information in their decision-making. We know the strength of this study is its ability to drive data-informed conversations, provide insights and inspire action across a broad spectrum of policymakers, hunger-relief partners, researchers, and community organizations,” Summerfelt continued. “To address persistent racial and geographical inequities, we continue to encourage federal and state surveys to invest in adequately sampling and collecting food insecurity data that can be disaggregated in meaningful ways. With those insights, communities are better equipped with the data necessary to support their neighbors in need.”
Other key findings of Map the Meal Gap include:
• 9 out of 10 high food insecurity counties are rural: Rural counties – those outside of major metropolitan areas – make up 63% of all U.S counties, but 89% of counties with food insecurity rates in the top 10% of all 3,142 counties.
• 8 out of 10 high food insecurity counties are in the South: An estimated 83% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in the South, though the South comprises less than half of all U.S. counties
• The national average cost per meal was $3.59: The national average cost per meal, a measure based on weekly food expenditure data from the Census Bureau Current Population Survey as reported by individuals who are food secure, was $3.59 in 2021, up from $3.25 in 2020 and the highest reported amount since 2005.
Dr. Craig Gundersen, Snee Family Endowed Chair at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty and a Professor in the Department of Economics at Baylor University and a member of Feeding America’s Technical Advisory Group is the lead researcher of Map the Meal Gap. The study is supported by Conagra Brands Foundation and NIQ.
“Conagra Brands Foundation partners with Feeding America and its network of 200 food banks to raise awareness and to take direct action that impacts the issue of food insecurity. Map the Meal Gap provides essential data and insights regarding the prevalence of hunger in our nation and exposes the disproportionate impact that food insecurity has on people and communities of color. We hope this research encourages meaningful conversations that result in actions and solutions that ultimately help provide consistent access to nutritious food for people in all communities,” said Robert J. Rizzo, Senior Director, of Community Investment, Conagra Brands and Conagra Brands Foundation
"NIQ recognizes the urgent need to address food insecurity in our communities. We are proud to partner with Feeding America to support their vital mission of providing access to nutritious food for those in need. Together, we are committed to positively impacting the lives of individuals and families facing hunger and to building a more equitable and sustainable food system for all," said Kymberly Graham, Vice President and Head of Diversity Initiatives, at NIQ, a global measurement and data analytics company.
Map the Meal Gap also reports on food price variation across counties and the study finds that county meal costs range from 76% of the national average in places like Dimmit County and Maverick County, Texas ($2.73) up to two times the national average in New York County, New York ($5.93). For a household struggling to afford housing, utilities, transportation, and other necessities, the additional burden of high food prices can have a significant impact on a household’s budget – important to note especially as the country is still experiencing elevated inflation.
Map the Meal Gap provides the following data online through an interactive map:
• The estimated prevalence of food insecurity among the overall and child populations for every U.S. state, county, and congressional district, as well as the service area of each Feeding America food bank.
• The estimated food insecurity prevalence for Black, Latino, and white communities where sufficient sample sizes have allowed estimates to be generated.
• The estimated percentage of the overall population in food-insecure households that are income eligible for SNAP and the estimated percentage of the child population in food-insecure households that are income eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
• The average meal cost in every state and county.
• The food budget shortfall in every state and county.
• For the first time in 2023, the map now also includes state-level food insecurity estimates for seniors and adults aged 50-59, produced as part of Feeding America’s State of Senior Hunger report series.
Map the Meal Gap was awarded the 2021 Policy Impact Award by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The full suite of Map the Meal Gap research from Feeding America allows policymakers, state agencies, corporate partners, food banks, and advocates to develop integrated strategies to fight hunger on a community level.
To explore the various research tools and briefs available from Feeding America, visit feedingamerica.org/research.