Where are people hungry?
The simple answer: everywhere. When you exploreThree Square’s “Food Insecurity by Zip Code 2012” map, you will see that no area of the Vegas Valley is immune to hunger.
It’s evident that there are geographic areas of our community that are centrally located, have older homes and established neighborhoods, and a concentration of low-income residents. Here unemployment is high, poverty is high and the medium household income is lower. Unfortunately, there are households here steeped in generational poverty. That’s not to say generational poverty can’t be found in every area of town, but there’s no disputing these neighborhoods have a demonstrated need for concentrations of safety-net programs and services.
Since 2008, Southern Nevada has seen a change in the dynamic of poverty due to the pervasiveness of the recession. Southern Nevada has suffered sustained unemployment - peaking at nearly 15%. After years of boom that abruptly ended in early 2009, many families experienced situational poverty for the first time in their lives. Unemployment skyrocketed across the suburban sprawl and foreclosures hit an all-time high. Families everywhere are struggling with unprecedented debt. First time users of food pantries became the norm as Three Square Program Partners ramped up food-assistances services across the valley to meet increasing demand in suburban neighborhoods.
What is the difference between food insecurity and hunger?
Loosely defined, “food insecurity” describes a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for individuals within a household: limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. The USDA measures food insecurity through an annual household phone survey, in which participants answer questions based on their own perceptions of food needs, as well as many other areas of nutrition and public health. “Marginal food insecurity” is considered the first level of hunger in which insufficient resources lead to concerns that food supplies will run out before more can be secured. The second level, “Food Insecurity with Hunger,” a household has experienced an insufficient supply of food and has been forced to reduce the size of a meal or skipped a meal because there simply wasn’t enough food. Often in families with children, adults in the home will go without food so that the children will have enough food to eat. When a household experiences “Food Insecurity with Child Hunger,” also referred to as “very low food security,” children are also eating smaller portions or skipping meals, and food deprivation among the adults is more pronounced.
Food insecurity, as measured by Feeding America in the most recent “Map the Meal Gap” study uses existing data including the prevalence of unemployment, poverty, and median household income, as well as demographics and food pricing to determine a county level food insecurity rate. Map the Meal Gap, debuted in April, 2011, provided Clark County level data on food insecurity available for the first time. Food insecurity here doesn’t necessarily mean “hunger” either but rather the more loose definition: “a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for individuals within a household: limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” This lack of access equated to an average of 5.5 meals per week, for about seven months of the year. So, to achieve food secure and eradicate hunger, it is estimated that Clark County would need an additional 64.3 million lbs of food through increased household food budgets (decreased unemployment), charitable (food distribution) and government (SNAP) sources.
Which statistics on food insecurity are accurate?
The USDA and Feeding America each used vastly different methodology to estimate food-insecurity, though their results for Nevada only differentiated by about 3-4%; both studies use rigorous scientific methods and have a low margin of error. Yet all research has limitations. A few of the USDA’s study limitations include: 1) participants of phone surveys may under-report the extent of their need; 2) only households with phones can participate in the USDA’s measurement. Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap uses existing data, which means this study takes on all the limitations of all of the individual sets of data. However, a big plus of Map the Meal Gap is that it uses both quantitative data (such as the unemployment figures) and qualitative (individual responses to Neilson’s national consumer survey on purchasing behaviors and additional food budget needs). Because of the comprehensiveness of Map the Meal Gap analysis, we feel this study is a more accurate estimation of food insecurity.
Clark County is unique among other counties in the nation as this one county contains 75% of the state’s entire population. Three Square and our Agency Partners wanted to better understand the concentrations of food insecurity with our county’s dense population, so we undertook “Map the Meal Gap: Food Insecurity by Zip Code.” Food insecurity was measured in the exact same way as the county level data, but specific data sets were analyzed separately for each zip code. Three Square greatly appreciates the work of our collaborative research partners including Dr. Gunderson, creator of Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, and Applied Analysis. Having an accurate picture of neighborhood level food insecurity helps Three Square and our Agency Partners ensure that food resources are being appropriately disseminated across the valley.
How can households be insecure if they aren't experiencing unemployment?
Map the Meal Gap uses many variables to calculate food insecurity, but unemployment has been identified as a primary determinant. Food insecurity is a complex social phenomenon; if only unemployed persons needed food assistance, we’d know exactly where to go and which houses to visit with boxes of food until their employment situations changed for the better.
Surprising to many, a large number of households with working adults qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The USDA estimates that nearly 50% of all Americans will be eligible for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) at some point their lifetime, meaning that 1 in every 2 individuals will live, for at least a short duration, at 200% of poverty or below. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) recently posted this update on their website:
“While rising unemployment can help explain the high SNAP/Food Stamp participation, the number of people on SNAP/Food Stamps who also have jobs increased as well – according to the Financial Times, 40 percent of SNAP/Food Stamp recipients have “earned income” as opposed to 25 percent two years ago. Because of inflation, the average U.S. worker’s wage has remained flat. Now the Bureau of Labor Statistics is reporting that the price of food has begun to rise. It rose 0.6 percent in February, on top of January’s 0.5 percent increase. In August 2010, food prices rose only 0.1 percent.”
Underemployment is a financial challenge for many households. Recovery in the job’s market has been slow forcing thousands of Nevada’s working adults into part time employment, jobs that don’t include health insurance, or work that pays less than their previous ones. Receding household incomes is a major challenge among families that incurred mortgage debt on homes that were bought at the height of the market. Certainly, most of the families living in these areas have not experienced food insecurity during the recession, but many have. First time consumers of community-based social services became a common occurrence at food pantries in 2009 and 2010. Many commented that they never imagined “this” would happen to them. Regardless of where a person lives or what their current job status is, food insecurity may be one or two missing paychecks away. Struggling to keep up payments on debt with less income is a familiar story that we can all appreciate.
Aside from underemployment, other extenuating circumstances can surface which causes a household to become food insecure. Severe acute or chronic medical conditions can quickly affect one’s food security; the cost of health insurance, prescription medications and hospital bills add up quickly. Ongoing treatment costs for illnesses/conditions can force previously working adults into under-employment or unemployment. The circumstance of being a single parent of children, or taking care of a senior parent, can also be financially challenging as financial resources are diverted from household food budgets.
Minimum wage is not necessarily a “living wage.”
Adults working 40 hours a week earning minimum wage are not earning a “living wage” according to one university’s living wage index for Clark County, Nevada. Consider the following living expenses of this working single mom, Jeannette, against her minimum wage job earnings of $1256 per month ($7.25 per hour):
Since she lives at a low-income level, despite working a full time job, she would qualify for SNAP benefits and even state funded health insurance for her child. In the past, she may have qualified for child care assistance and a few hundred dollars a year for her power bill, but those programs were red-lined in the last state budget cycle. Even cutting out Jeannette’s food, health insurance and half her day care expenses, Jeannette is nearly $1000 short each month. Jeannette receives inconsistent child support payments so that $400 per month doesn’t go too far. Jeannette sometimes delays paying household bills for over a month until child support payments catch up; she’s paid off her electricity bill just before the lights were turned off more than once this year.
If Jeannette was paid $17 dollars an hour – which would be above 200% of poverty and disqualify her for the state and federal cash assistance programs like free and reduced lunch and breakfast at school, SNAP, child health insurance, and child care assistance - Jeannette would still be short $200 per month.
In another circumstance, Hector’s siblings and he own and operate a landscaping business. During the economy’s downturn many homes cancelled maintenance services and special projects in home construction landscaping abruptly ended. When work was available his family was able to make ends meet. Hector estimated that his monthly income was about $3,500 for a family of six: he and his wife, three kids and a grandchild. As a business owner doing well during the construction boom, Hector’s family bought a house in a nice neighborhood where the kids could go to a good school. After his mortgage payment, his family has about $1,200 for all their bills and food. His family visits a food pantry about once per month, sometimes twice. Although he may never get the full value back out of his house, Hector doesn’t want to leave for fear that he won’t be able to secure a loan to purchase another less expensive one.
If unemployment is a leading indicator of food insecurity, how do you account for senior citizens?
Food insecurity among senior citizens is also complex. One of the most vexing layers of this problem is grasping how estimates of food insecurity among senior citizens are determined. The leading measure of food insecurity among seniors is the USDA Household Food Security Survey, i.e. the phone survey. Adults without children in the home are asked 10 questions on age, food security (Appendix B) and household income. Questions in this survey slant toward having enough financial resources to secure an adequate food supply but don’t necessarily take non-monetary sources of food into consideration (like food secured through pantries).
It is widely assumed that a certain percentage of people with consistent, dependable community-based resources may not perceive themselves as worrying about not having enough money for food because they know where the charitable sources of their food supply is coming from. Take the first statement/questions in the USDA’s Household Food Security Survey: “The food I/we had just didn’t last and there wasn’t money to get more.” “Is that often, sometimes or never true for you in your household?” Well, perhaps the financial resources wouldn’t have been there if they were needed, but their food supply does last because the senior receives food from Meals on Wheels and the local senior center brings Senior Share, with its fresh fruits and vegetables to their door twice per month. We don’t know the caveats to the answers of individual households.
Therefore, when 5.97% of senior citizens over the age of 60 report that they are food insecure, which roughly translates into 19,000 seniors in Clark County, it’s difficult to say whether or not another 20,000 seniors A) underreported their food insecurity level or B) responded “never” because they receive non-monetary sources of food and therefore don’t run out of food (dependable help from pantries, commodity programs, senior centers, Meals on Wheels, or SNAP benefits). Both seem entirely plausible, because Three Square Agency Partners consistently serve between 15,000 and 20,000 seniors over age 60 each month (2010-2011).
Because of the possible variations in measurements, Three Square estimates that despite the current reach of senior food-assistance and nutrition programs, an additional 20,000 seniors in our community “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for individuals within a household: limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.”
Underwater mortgages and home foreclosures impact food insecurity
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers the top of the range for housing/shelter to be 30% of the household’s income. Households with employed adults that live in homes bought 5-10 years ago may be able to stay within this range, but if the average two bedroom apartment is $838 then the person renting it should have a net income of $2,800. In order for Jeannette to spend 30% of her income on a $838 apartment while making minimum wage, she’d have to work 11.5 hours a day, every day of the week!/p>
A map detailing the foreclosure rates in each zip code (Attachment A) clearly demonstrates that geographic areas surrounding the 215 beltway experienced unprecedented unemployment, upside-down mortgage debt, and an income to debt ratio that drove thousands of our neighbors into situational poverty and home foreclosure, regardless of their employment status.
If unemployment is a leading indicator of food insecurity, how do you account for children?
A second Feeding America report, “Map the Meal Gap: Childhood Food Insecurity” utilized several of the methods employed in the Map the Meal Gap Household Food Insecurity, including household unemployment among parents, poverty, median household income and other such demographics. Children are never surveyed by Feeding America, USDA or any other credible source.
Map the Meal Gap is an incredibly useful tool to local programs, schools and Three Square. Considering the Clark County School District, in 2010, enrolled more than 55% of students (about 170,000 in grades K-12) in the free and reduced price breakfast and lunch program, it’s not surprising that about 1 in every 4 children lives in a household that lacks access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life. This statistic reinforces the benefit of, and continued need for, federal nutrition programs that provide free, nutritious meals for children in school, after school supper meals and SNAP benefits.
How many times does a food insecure person or family need help?
Map the Meal Gap revealed the average food insecure person is in need of an additional 5.5 meals per week over an average length of ten months a year (Neilson company survey on food purchase behaviors and need). What’s significant about seven months? Several factors may contribute to this timeframe including how long a person is generally unemployed, or without adequate social resources to secure a large enough food supply.
Prior to the recession, SNAP beneficiaries tended to remain on the program for about eight months. Since unemployment was extended by the federal government in 2009 to more than a year due to the sluggish growth rate of new jobs, it is likely that over the past three years the average length of time that individuals or families depend on emergency food and SNAP have also increased. Researchers won’t know the impact of the recession on length of need until the recession is over; a national analysis of this magnitude will take time..
At Three Square, we strive to present the most up-to-date and accurate picture of food insecurity possible. It doesn’t benefit Three Square to overestimate the challenge of hunger in our community and then under-perform in our annual strategic goals. The truth is that since Three Square opened its doors in 2008, programs have been flourishing and growing out of need, not just because they are new. While it’s true that over the last three years, Southern Nevadan’s have a greater understanding of Three Square’s mission and how and where to receive help when it’s needed, our community has also demonstrated significantly increased demand for food assistance through sustained unemployment, rising poverty and food costs, and decreasing household incomes. And while Three Square is proud the tremendous progress we have made as a community, providing food-assistance and nutrition programming to about 100,000 individuals per month, we are still only reaching about 30% of the need: 295,000 people in Clark County alone are food insecure according to Map the Meal Gap.
Three Square’s mission is to “Provide wholesome food to hungry people while passionately pursuing a hunger-free community.” While research provides background support for the work of the food bank and our Program Partners, the true work of understanding food insecurity comes from the individuals seeking out our food assistance services. Ask a Three Square driver “Where does hunger live?” as they deliver food to the door of a church with more than 50 people already waiting in line. The answer will surely shape your perspective in a way that numbers will always fail to do.
Additional Online Resources for Further Learning
Three Square’s “Food Insecurity by Zip Code” map
Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” (National, State, County – Households; and Children)
AARP Foundation’s report on “Food Insecurity Among Older Adults”
Three Square’s Report “Hunger in Community: Envisioning a Hunger-Free Southern Nevada”
Three Square’s “SNAP Impact Report”