New data show thousands in Polk County struggle with food insecurity

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2015

When I received news that Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, had released the results of the 2015 Map the Meal Gap study earlier this month, I was eager to see what this year’s study would show about food insecurity in Polk County. (Note: Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as lack of access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.)

I wondered if the data would reveal anything new about this often-hidden and easy to overlook problem. I was concerned about how the children in our small, rural community were affected by food insecurity. Most importantly, I hoped to find that the study would show that the number of both adults and children struggling with food insecurity had diminished since it was last measured.

What I learned is that Polk County’s rate of food insecurity among children during 2013 (the last year such data was measured) was 27.4 percent. Or, put in slightly different terms, over 1,030 county children were affected by food insecurity that year. This means that while one in six children across the nation faced food insecurity, over one in four Polk County children struggled to get enough food.

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While these numbers did not increase markedly over last year’s findings, I feel these statistics are dishearteningly high and I trust that most of us in the community believe that it is wrong for even one child to go hungry.

Although initially appearing more favorable, the statistics for Polk County’s overall rate of food insecurity were disturbing as well. While the percentage of the County’s population affected remained stable at just over 14 percent (equivalent to the national average), according to the 2015 Map the Meal Gap study, the total number of individuals affected by food insecurity in Polk County increased from 2,890 to 3,774.

Feeding America’s CEO, Bob Aiken, described the continued high rates of food insecurity across the nation in a recent National Geographic article by stating, “The data has remained about the same for the last five years, despite an improving economy, because the cost of food is high in many areas and wages are stagnant. People are still making trade-offs between rent, utilities, medical care and food.”

As the executive director of Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry (“Outreach”) for the last five years, I don’t doubt the validity of the statistics published in the 2015 Map the Meal Gap study. While my evidence is more anecdotal, I see people every day who have to make extremely difficult decisions about how to spend their limited financial resources. During my tenure, I’ve also witnessed the consistent rise in the number of individuals and families that turn to Outreach for assistance with food and other basic life needs.

However difficult to face, I believe that it is important for the members of our community to examine the statistics and to consider that the numbers reflect human beings. In order to make any progress towards solving food insecurity and poverty, we’re going to need to work together to ease the issues that influence our neighbors in need.

What is Outreach doing to make a dent in food insecurity in our community? During 2014, Outreach:

  • provided 9,608 packs of weekend food to help alleviate weekend hunger for school-children facing food insecurity in the home;
  • fulfilled 2,886 requests for food from our pantry by providing a generous week’s worth of food each visit;
  • provided 64,966 pounds of fresh produce to families in need, helping those affected by food insecurity to eat more healthfully; and we
  • distributed 2,763 packs of USDA commodities to families who received government assistance.

This year, we continue to strive to provide services that meet the needs of our county’s residents struggling with food insecurity and we remain as committed as ever to our vision of serving as the “heart of a unified, community-wide effort through which no individual or family in Polk County goes hungry, cold or without shelter.”

What can you do to make a difference in the lives of those struggling with food insecurity in our community?  One way you can join in the conversation is to attend “Making the Good Life Available to All,” on Saturday, May 9 at the Polk County Middle School Auditorium.  Anyone from the Polk County community who wishes to examine the impact of poverty and its effects on communication, interaction and expectations is welcomed to attend.  (For more information on the seminar, please contact Rev. Rob Parsons at 828-606-3452).

Also, please read this column next month where I’ll explore some of the other ways you can make a difference in the lives of some of our county’s most vulnerable residents.

Map the Meal Gap is an annual study examines food insecurity in each county and congressional district in the nation. Since its inception in 2009, it has been funded jointly by the Howard G. Buffet Foundation and Nielson, the company famous for measuring TV ratings.  In 2011, with the financial support of ConAgra Foods Foundation, the study began incorporating data on child food insecurity rates.


-Submitted by Carol Newton, executive director, Thermal Belt Outreach Ministryt