Prosperity Watch (Issue 55, No. 4)

November 24, 2015

With the holidays around the corner, it is important to reflect on the sobering facts that paint a picture of how families are struggling with hunger in today’s economy. Nearly 1 in 5 North Carolinian households live with food insecurity and struggle to put wholesome meals on the table for their loved ones. Due to a lack of resources, on any given day these families face difficult tradeoffs between food and other essential needs such as child care, rent, and utilities. High rates of food hardship and economic insecurity persist due to an economic recovery that is marked by growing income inequality, too few jobs, and a boom in low-wage, low-quality jobs.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecure households as those that do not have consistent, dependable access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle due to a lack of resources. These are households that have trouble feeding their families.

Food insecurity levels rose sharply during the Great Recession but have not improved since then.* Approximately 16.7 percent of North Carolinians struggle with food insecurity, according to the USDA (see graphic below). On this measure, the average North Carolinian fares worse than the average American; as a state North Carolina has the 9th highest level in the nation. North Carolina has worse levels of food hardship than all four of its neighboring states.

The USDA breaks down overall food insecurity into two categories: low food security and very low food security. More than 10 percent of North Carolina households face low food security, meaning they report three or more food-insecure conditions in the previous year. There are varying instances of food-insecure conditions, which can include when a household’s food runs out but there is no money to buy more, or when a household can’t afford to eat a balanced meal. More than six percent of North Carolina households face very low food security, meaning that at least one person in the household reduces food intake or changes their eating pattern due to a lack of resources at any point during the year.

High rates of food hardship continue to plague North Carolina’s metropolitan statistical areas (MSA). The Greensboro‐High Point metropolitan area ranks as the worst MSA for food hardshipout of the top 100 MSAs in the country in 2013-2014 that responded to a Gallup survey, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Three of the state’s other MSAs ranked poorly too, placing among the top 35 worst MSA rankings in the nation:  Winston-Salem (22nd), Asheville (28th), and Charlotte-Gastonia (34th).

At the county-level, the highest rates of food insecurity are clustered in the Northeastern part of North Carolina where high poverty rates have persisted for decades, according to Feeding America’s county-level estimates using related data.

Food insecurity during the holidays, or any time of the year, is not inevitable. Policy choices are available to help people have enough food to eat and gain a foothold on the economic ladder. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps and the nation’s most effective anti-hunger program, is a tool that does just that but federal policymakers allowed a temporary boost in SNAP benefits to expire in 2013. And come next year, more than 100,000 of the state’s poorest adults could be cut off SNAP due to the return of a harsh three-month time limit for childless, non-disabled adults aged 18-49. These adults will lose their food aid after three months if they can’t find a job, job-training program, or volunteer opportunity for 20 hours per week—regardless of labor market and economic conditions in their community.

Creating more barriers to economic security or food assistance will do nothing to reduce hunger and food insecurity in North Carolina. Creating good, quality jobs and keeping a robust work and income supports system in place are what will reduce hunger and boost economic opportunity—which benefits all of us.

*While the data show a slight improvement over the 2011-13 average, the differences are not statistically significant and thus remain unchanged.