Food Insecurity and Health Indicators at the County Level

by Adam Dewey Research Analyst, Feeding America

Healthy bodies and minds require nutritious meals at every age. Inconsistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food can have a negative impact on the health of individuals of all ages. The USDA estimates that as of 2016, 41 million people, including nearly 13 million children, in the United States are food insecure. That means 1 in 8 individuals (13%) and 1 in 6 children (18%) live in homes without consistent access to adequate food for everyone to live healthy, active lives. This is a national problem with local health implications for individuals and communities across the country.

For the eighth consecutive year, Feeding America has conducted the Map the Meal Gap study to estimate the prevalence of food insecurity for every county and congressional district in the United States. To better understand the relationship between food insecurity and poor health outcomes at the local level, this year’s study includes an analysis of food insecurity in the context of health, a topic addressed in one of four report briefs that make up the Map the Meal Gap 2018 analysis.

To accurately estimate the number of people who may be food insecure in every U.S. county and congressional district, we use publicly available state and local data on factors that research has shown to be correlated with food insecurity. These factors include unemployment and poverty, as well as other demographic and household characteristics. Research has also shown that having a disability is a key risk factor for food insecurity, and that food insecurity is associated with a wide array of negative health outcomes, including obesity and diabetes.

To explore these relationships at the local level, we analyzed county data from Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Community Survey (ACS). Compared to all counties, those with the highest rates of food insecurity tend to have a higher share of people with a disability, diabetes, or obesity. Disabling or chronic health conditions often increase household expenses, especially for food-insecure households without health insurance who may be forced to choose between paying for medical expenses and food. We also find that counties with the highest rates of food insecurity also tend to have higher uninsured rates (16%) relative to all other counties (12%).

The local confluence of food insecurity and negative health outcomes underscores the need for collaborative, cross-sector public-health and food-security interventions, especially in counties with higher rates of people struggling with hunger. Although federal nutrition programs serve as the first line of defense against hunger, not all individuals in need qualify for assistance or receive adequate support. This reality underscores the importance of charitable food assistance, but also the need to protect and strengthen federal nutrition assistance programs.

Adam Dewey is a Research Analyst at Feeding America where he manages the Map the Meal Gap project, an annual study that estimates local food insecurity and food cost in the United States to inform strategies to end hunger in America.