Rural America produces most of the food in the United States, yet, remarkably, rural Americans struggle with food insecurity more than their urban counterparts. Rural counties make up 63% of all U.S. counties, but they account for 78% of the U.S. counties with the highest rates of food insecurity. Food insecurity among children is even higher at 85% of counties with the highest rates.

What is food insecurity?

Simply put, food insecurity is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food due to inadequate resources. There are two classes of food insecurity: low and very low. Low food insecurity, which represents the majority of those insecure, is the report of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Low food insecure households avoid total reduction in food intake yet they rely on a few basic foods causing an insufficient dietary pattern. Very low food insecurity is when eating patterns are disrupted and there is a reduction in food intake due to lack of funds.

Healthy People 2020 states that food insecurity may be chronic or temporary, and it can be influenced by a variety of factors, including household income, employment status, and disability. Other influencing factors may be neighborhood conditions and lack of access to a full-service grocer. Many impoverished and rural neighborhoods only have convenience-type stores that do not adequately stock affordable nutritional foods.

According to a study conducted in 24 rural, high-poverty counties in the U.S., rural communities also experience unique barriers to food access when compared to urban areas. This study, conducted in Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota, found that rural communities tend to face different obstacles when addressing access to food. These challenges include the price of fruits and vegetables, transportation costs, and the relative prevalence of chronic disease. These 6 states have worked together and implemented community interventions in these highly impoverished Midwestern counties.  Voices for Food is a 5 year project that includes a multi-disciplinary team. The team consists of nutrition specialists, those involved in agriculture, youth, researchers, and others to better serve the community with healthy food choices and availability.

Another study of U.S. county-level data published in 2018 showed that rural households spent more on food than their urban counterparts, and, while they had lower incomes than urbanites, their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were lower on average. A sub-analysis, done on both the Appalachian and Delta regions of the United States, showed that these regions in particular had higher rates of food insecurity and the highest food-to-income expenditure ratio in the nation. These regions also had fewer full-service grocers and more low-income families than other regions of the U.S.

The USDA reported that according to the CDC food insecurities often result in a wide variety health problems. The study found that there was a strong relationship between a person’s food insecurity status and chronic conditions such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, hepatitis, stroke, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, COPD, and kidney disease. Researchers have noted that food insecurity impacts both productivity and well-being, resulting in increased medical costs and health care utilization. Child food insecurity also may result in poor health, behavior and productivity in and out of school.

Available Resources

There are resources available to those in need of food. Federal programs such as SNAP, which prevented 3.2 million people from falling into poverty in 2018., the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), free school breakfast and lunch programs, Women Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC), senior nutrition programs, food pantries, USDA educational information and community involvement can help to alleviate food insecurity.

Feeding America is a nonprofit organizations which aids in hunger relief. It consists of a network of 200 food banks across the country and works with many organizations such as manufacturers, distributors, retailers, food service companies, and farmers. There are also mobile food pantries and other services that serve people in need such as Meals on Wheels.

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Debra Curti
Debra Curti is a Research Associate at the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.