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Every county in the U.S. is home to people who can't afford food, study shows

Zlati Meyer

Every county in America is home to people who don't have enough money to buy healthy food. That's what a new study by Feeding America, a Chicago-based national network of 200 food banks.

Within the country's 3,142 counties, food insecurity rates range from 3% in Steele County, North Dakota, to 36% in Jefferson County, Mississippi, the Map the Meal Gap 2019 report found.

The data, collected in 2017, also revealed that 97% of U.S. counties are home to people who are food insecure and likely ineligible for most federal nutrition assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known colloquially as food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, often called WIC.

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The health implications for the 40 million people in the U.S. – or 1 out of 8 – are sizable, the study said. Not being able to buy healthy food prompts people to eat cheaper, less nutritious food, which can lead to diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes. That leads to higher health care costs and potentially a harder time working – two more pressures on an already food-strained budget.

"Counties with the highest rates of food insecurity – those in the top 10% of all counties – tend to have similarly poor economic indicators: higher rates of unemployment and poverty and lower homeownership and median income as compared with all counties," the report found.

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According to lead researcher Craig Gundersen, during the Great Recession, food insecurity rose 30% from 2007 to 2008. Then, when the economy got better, the rates didn't decline, rather they stayed the same from 2009 to 2014.

"Only in the last few years did they decline," said the professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The levels today are still higher than they were in 2007. While in many dimensions the United State recovered from the Great Recession, the most vulnerable among us still haven't recovered."

Feeding America, who's produced the annual study for the past nine years, said it used publicly available state and local data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here are three other key findings from the report:

Children suffer

Kids are more like than the general population in every state to be food insecure – 1 out of every 6 children or 12.5 million kids. An estimated 750,000 of them live in Los Angeles and New York City.

The rate of food insecurity for children ranges from 6% in Slope County, N.D., to 40% in East Carroll Parrish, Louisiana.

Food-insecure children face a higher risk of stunted growth, asthma, oral health issues, failing to meet developmental milestones, lower math and reading scores and behavioral issues, like hyperactivity, aggression and anxiety. 

Dollars and cents

Someone who is food insecure needs an average of $43 more per month to buy enough to eat. The national average cost of a meal was $3.02 in 2017, down from $3.06 in 2016 after accounting for inflation.

Forty-three percent of U.S. counties' meal costs are higher than the national average – some as much as double.

Location matters

Approximately 87% of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in the South. Close to 3 million people are food-insecure in that area.

Another common factor among counties with high food insecurity rates is whether they're rural. Though 63% of all counties in the U.S. are rural, 78% of counties in the top 10% of those with high food-insecurity levels are rural.

"Many counties located outside major metropolitan areas and in the South are home to large communities of color living at elevated risk of food insecurity," the Feeding America report said. "These communities face persistently high rates of unemployment and poverty."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Every county in the U.S. is home to people who can't afford food, study shows