By David Vania
Across Florida and throughout the United States, we are recognizing Hunger Action Month this September. The month-long campaign is coordinated each year by the food banks to generate awareness about the consequences of food insecurity, and advocate for solutions -- both big and small -- to alleviate food insecurity.
A definition of food insecurity
Before we consider the rate of food insecurity in Florida, it's important to first define the term and understand how it differs from "hunger." In short, food insecurity is about "limited or uncertain access to adequate food" while hunger is "the individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity" (source: USDA's Economic Research Service).
What this means is that when a child or adult experiences food insecurity, s/he may be hungry, though not all the time. Hunger could come just at the end of the month when SNAP (previously known as food stamps) benefits run out. Or food-secure individuals may experience food insecurity more often and be forced to make hard choices, such as purchasing medication or an adequate amount of nutritious foods. The different degrees of "food insecurity" explains why the USDA has created both a "low food security" label and a "very low food security" category.
the Scope of hunger in Florida
In Florida, the latest numbers show that 3,227,600 people, or 16.2% of the state population, is food insecure (source: 2016 Map the Meal Gap data aggregated by Feeding America).
More: Florida's children and teens are food insecure at a higher rate (24.9%) than the overall population (16.2%). In actual numbers, that's 1,007,870 kids.
The good news, if there can be good news when evaluating food insecurity data, is that the percentage and overall rate have dropped year to year. Current stats indicate there's been a drop from last year's figures of 3,315,550, or 17% of the state population.
But back to the less-than-good news. The average cost of a Florida meal is up, now over $3 per person. Where I live, in Martin County, the average meal cost is a whopping $0.75 higher than the national average. While Meal costs are rising throughout the country, averaging $2.89 nationally, Floridians, on average, are paying $0.18 more per meal than people in other states. That may not sound like a lot, but start multiplying per meal, per person, and the weekly cost of food begins to make a dent in the budget of families struggling to make ends meet.
the face of food insecurity in Florida
Consider that 25% of the food-insecure population do not qualify for SNAP or other nutrition programs. This means that one in four Floridians are solely dependent on food banks and others providing emergency food assistance to fill the gap between money and basic needs each month. Many who do not qualify for SNAP still supplement their food supplies by accessing food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens. The recent reintroduction of a three-month time limit for SNAP benefits among Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents compounds and individual's struggle against food insecurity.
Who is experiencing food insecurity in Florida? A 2014 report, Hunger in Florida 2014, found that:
58% of Florida households recieving food assistance have a member with high blood pressure
33% have a member with diabetes
59% have unpaid medical bills
55% had at least one member in the household who had been employed in the last year
35% had at least one member employed in the last four weeks
In the past year, 73% had to choose between food and utilities, 69% had to choose between food and transportation, 68% had to choose between food and medicine/medical care, 64% had to choose between food and housing, and 31% had to choose between food and education.
The role of Florida's food banks
Your local food banks, as well as the thousands and thousands of food pantries and soup kitchens across the state that make up Florida's emergency food distribution network, are also working around-the-clock to offer solutions for alleviating food insecurity in Florida.
Many are reaching well beyond their traditional role as "pounds in/pounds out" distribution centers to partner with schools, farms, hospitals, and others. These partnerships increase not only access to food, but access to nutritious, Florida-grown fruits and vegetables. Still others are advocating for policies that will increase resources for vital "wraparound" services that so many low-income individuals need, such as health care, transportation, and affordable housing.
So, I urge you this September to get in touch with your local food bank and learn about how you can make a direct contribution to the fight against hunger in our state this month -- and beyond.
You can find more information to support hunger action at the following links:
Feeding America, the nationwide network of food banks, has tons of data.
Feeding Florida, formerly known as the Florida Association of Food Banks, has great statewide data.
The Food Resource & Action Center has loads of data and reports on SNAP, school meals, afterschool and summer programs, and more.
Your local food bank will have county data and, in some cases, can even provide insecurity rates by census tract.
(Photos shared with Feeding America network)
-- David Vaina is the Senior Director of Marketing, Communications & Brand Strategy at Treasure Coast Food Bank. He is also a proud member of the Florida Food Policy Council.