Detailed Findings and Methodology:
One of the largest determinants of food insecurity is income. High-protein foods and fresh produce are expensive in most parts of the country and may not make the shopping lists of many low-income Americans. While there are federal nutrition programs to assist low-income individuals, residents in high poverty counties still find it difficult to access healthy food.
Of the 50 counties with the highest food insecurity rate in each state, 29 also have the highest poverty rate in their respective state.
Poverty is one part of the food access equation — location is another. Rural counties are more likely to have high rates of food insecurity, as many small towns lack critical food infrastructure such as grocery stores and farmers markets that provide affordable, healthy produce.
In rural counties with food access problems it is possible to be considered food insecure even with wages that exceed the federal poverty line. Nearly half of all food insecure individuals, about 19 million Americans, earn at least 130% of the poverty level, the threshold for receiving SNAP benefits in most counties.
In some rural areas, even the individuals who qualify and could use government assistance often struggle to enroll in federal nutrition programs. In large, urban areas, poor individuals are more likely to receive the application and recertification assistance that can help enroll them in food stamp programs. Feeding America found that small, rural towns in the South that were not adjacent to metropolitan areas tended to have the largest shares of food-insecure individuals.
Counties in major metropolitan areas can also have large shares of food insecure residents. Urban areas tend to have relatively high food prices, higher rent, and higher income inequality, all of which are associated with higher food insecurity. Metropolitan areas with high food insecurity rates include Baltimore, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia.
Food insecurity can lead to poor physical health High-protein foods and fresh produce are key components of a healthy diet, and people who lack access to them — particularly children and seniors — are at greater risk adverse health outcomes. In addition to food infrastructure such as grocery stores and food banks, rural areas also tend to lack access to locations for physical activity like gyms and recreation centers — further hurting health outcomes. In 42 of the 50 counties on this list, the share of adults who report being in fair or poor health is larger than the 15% national percentage.
To identify the county with the highest food insecurity rate in every state, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed state and county food insecurity data from national food bank network and advocacy group Feeding America and its report, “Map the Meal Gap 2017: A Report on County and Congressional District Food Insecurity and County Food Cost in the United States in 2015.” The food insecurity rate measures the number of individuals living in households who report inconsistent access to adequate food. Feeding America also estimated the percentage of food-insecure children who live in households likely eligible for federal nutrition assistance in each county. Poverty rates for all people in each county are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and are five-year averages through 2015. The share of the population living in a rural area also came from the Census Bureau and is for 2010 — the most recent year for which data is available. We also looked at additional measures of health factors and outcomes, including the share of adults reporting fair or poor health from the 2017 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
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