By: Krista Drescher-Burke, Data and Research Officer, Greater Louisville Project
According to the USDA very low food security means “that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.” Food insecure households are characterized by frequent worry that food will run out, inability to afford balanced meals, and insufficient food intake, which means skipping meals or going full days without eating.
In 2013, over 49 million Americans were part of food-insecure households. Overall, 14.3% of households in the US experienced food insecurity, and 19.5% of households with children experienced food insecurity, demonstrating that households with children disproportionally experience food insecurity. However, in about half of those homes, only the adults experienced food insecurity, implying that adults gave up food so the children could eat. Still, in 3.8 million American households, both children and adults experienced food insecurity in 2013.
Using data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, Louisville ranks 6th in food insecurity among our peers, with 17.2% of our total population experiencing food insecurity.
Louisville ranks 2nd in overall food insecurity among children, among our peers, suggesting we are doing well in keeping food insecurity low. Only St. Louis has lower food insecurity. However, more than 18% of our kids are food insecure.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of food insecurity. Good nutrition early in life is important for physical and mental health, academic success, and economic productivity. Food insecurity, on the other hand, poses a serious threat to development and success. Children’s Healthwatch reports that food-insecure children reach kindergarten lagging behind their peers in cognitive, emotional, and physical indicators, hindering a smooth transition and negatively affecting their early years at school, which in turn negatively affects future academic success. Food insecurity is also linked to worse health and lower levels of school engagement, both of which are related to lower academic achievement and lower rates of high school graduation. This equates to lower levels of college attendance, which ultimately results in lower human capital and a less competitive community. It is a difficult cycle to escape. Policies that address food insecurity have the potential to affect long-term community-level and national economic success, and reduce the demand for long-term health costs, as children enter school better prepared to learn and, ultimately, increase educational and occupational success.
While food insecurity is clearly common among impoverished households, it is not limited to people living below the poverty line. According to a 2014 joint report from Oxfam and Feeding America, more than half (54%) of food bank clients had at least one household member who had worked for pay in the previous 12 months, demonstrating the complex challenges faced by working Americans who struggle with low incomes, underemployment, and myriad expenses including medical care.
Among our peers, we rank 7th for full-time workers with incomes below the poverty line. Just to reiterate: There are many workers in Louisville, who work full-time, year round, and still live below the poverty line.
Of the clients who sought food assistance from a food bank, 86% of households with at least one employed member experienced food insecurity. That is, they were not merely seeking emergency food relief, but were formally considered food insecure. Since the 2008 recession, the United States has gained 2.3 million lower-wage jobs, while medium- and higher-wage jobs shrunk by 1.2 million. However, food insecurity has remained constant. These trends will likely continue as labor growth will continue to grow in low-wage occupations.
Currently, we are tied for 5th among our peers in percentage of jobs in the MSA paying at least a living wage. However, even though we have a decent rank among our peers, only 40% of jobs pay above a living wage. While this does not directly predict that food insecurity will increase or stay at the current level, it does mean that we would likely decrease food insecurity in our community with creation of more higher-paying jobs.
Food insecurity is not only a moral or compassion issue—we have many Louisvillians, including children, who simply do not have enough nutritious food to eat—it is also of concern as we strive to improve our position as a competitive city. Food insecurity negatively affects kindergarten readiness, which has implications for future academic achievement, which will mitigate our community’s efforts to increase the number of bachelors degrees and create high-wage 21st century jobs.
 USDA definitions of food security. Available from http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx
 USDA food security statistics. Available from (http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx
 Oxfam American and Feeding America. From paycheck to paycheck: Hunger in working America. Available from http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/our-research/hunger-in-working-america/from-paycheck-to-pantry.pdf