The percentage of households experiencing hunger in Missouri has more than doubled in the last decade, the highest increase in the country, according to a report released Wednesday by the University of Missouri.
The 2016 Missouri Hunger Atlas shows that 8 percent of households — or about half a million Missourians — went hungry at some point during the last year. An additional nearly half a million are “food insecure,” meaning they worry about not being able to put enough food on the table. They avoid hunger by eating a less nutritious diet and relying on assistance programs.
“Missouri households are the hungriest they have been in decades,” said Sandy Rikoon, director of the MU Interdisciplinary Center for Food Insecurity and co-author of the report.
In total, nearly 17 percent of Missouri households were food insecure last year, compared with 14 percent nationwide, placing it among the top 10 worst states.
The highest levels of food insecurity are seen among persistent high-poverty areas in southern Missouri and in St. Louis, where it’s estimated that nearly 26 percent struggle, the report found. However, areas in northern Missouri are experiencing increasing levels of poverty and people in need of food.
The economic and social costs of not having enough to eat are high. Studies of children show that food insecurity and hunger are big predictors of chronic illness, lower school performance and developmental problems.
“One in five children in Missouri live in food insecure households,” said MU doctoral student Darren Chapman. “We know these kids are much more likely to face health issues, miss school and have difficulty concentrating when they are in class.”
Adults face income loss, missed days at work, increased health costs and higher demand for public benefits and social services. The state spent well over $1.4 billion in 2012 on food stamp programs and reimbursement to schools to provide free and reduced-price meals, according to the report.
However, that amount does not include the administrative costs of operating the programs or private contributions. While food banks contribute more than 90 million pounds of food a year to pantries and other facilities, hundreds of faith-based and civic groups and other organizations also donate.
While assistance programs are critical in the daily struggles of hundreds of thousands of Missourians to provide enough nutrition for them or their families, they are not solutions to reversing worsening trends, the report says.
Rikoon suggests the first step in alleviating hunger is to raise the income of the poor through efforts such as higher wages, housing assistance and Social Security payments for the elderly and disabled.
“If a family has a working member, and this income barely covers rent, utilities, health care, transportation and other essentials; food is often the last expense to be covered,” Rikoon said. “We see lots of working households at food pantries. The same for the elderly whose Social Security checks disappear before they can get to the grocery store.
“It’s not people making poor decisions, it’s people making hard decisions and facing trade-offs between medicine and meat or between rent and red beans.”
Judy Berkowitz, director of the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry in Creve Coeur, said the pantry sometimes lacked items such as milk, yogurt and eggs for families.
“If we have to give a little bit less for families during certain weeks because our food supply is low, we will do that to make sure everyone goes home with food,” she said.
When the food pantry opened 25 years ago, it served 40 families. Last year, it served 16,758 people, most of them in St. Louis County, she said. More than 41 percent were children, and 19 percent were older adults. They include people who have used up their savings after losing jobs, are struggling with medical bills or are sick and can’t work.
“It’s important not to assume who comes to a food pantry,” Berkowitz said. “It could be your neighbor.”
She said food pantries expected to see an increasing need because of changes in the food stamp program that went into affect April 1. Able-bodied adults with no dependents can no longer receive the assistance.
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