More than one in five American kids lived in a “food insecure” household in 2012, according to the newest annual Map the Meal Gap report from anti-hunger charity Feeding America.
The food insecurity rate for children nationwide is 21.6 percent. That number rises to almost three in ten kids for a long list of states including New Mexico (29.2 percent), Mississippi (28.7 percent), Arizona (28.2 percent), Nevada (28.1 percent), Georgia (28.1 percent), Arkansas (27.7 percent), Florida (27.6 percent), and Texas (27.4 percent).
American adults fare better, with an overall food insecurity rate of 15.9 percent. The good news is that that’s down from 16.4 percent in 2011, and 1.1 million fewer Americans faced hunger in 2012 than in 2011, but that’s where the optimism ends. Roughly 49 million Americans remained food insecure.
Food insecurity, defined by the Census Bureau and Agriculture Department as the condition of having limited or uncertain access to adequate food, remains concentrated in rural America. Feeding America’s data lets the group make county-by-county comparisons. The 10 percent of American counties with the highest rates of food insecurity was more rural in the 2012 data than it was in the 2011 numbers. After accounting for just 48 percent of the hungriest counties in 2011, rural America now makes up 52 percent of the 2012 pool.
The disparity between the hungriest tenth of American counties and the rest is stark. Food insecurity rates average 14 percent across the bottom 90 percent of counties, but that figure leaps to 23 percent in the 324 hungriest ones. The hungriest counties are concentrated in the south and southeastern United States, with less than 12 percent of the group coming from outside those regions. At 22.3 percent, Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity of any state.
But the much lower rates of food insecurity in high-population metropolitan areas could obscure the fact that huge raw numbers of people face hunger in places with lower rates. The top four counties with the highest number of hungry people mirror the list of the country’s largest cities. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Houston claim a combined 4,595,780 food-insecure persons, yet have food insecurity rates far below those of the rural counties where residents face a higher probability of hunger.
More than a quarter of the nation’s food-insecure people earn too much money to qualify for government assistance yet are still unable to provide adequate food for their families throughout the year, according to the report. Those same programs have faced wave upon wave of funding cuts even as private food charities have said repeatedly that they do not have the capacity to pick up the government’s slack.
This story has been updated to better reflect the relationship between the inconsistent access to adequate nutrition that researchers call “food insecurity” and the physiological condition of hunger.