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Expert Perspective

A Closer Look at Food Insecurity


February 6th, 2020


Last fall the Urban Institute released a new interactive tool mapping food insecurity across the country. The dashboard provides county-level data about a range of different factors that impact food insecurity, and groups counties by risk factors.

We spoke with Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute about the new tool. A transcript of our conversation follows.

Can you define food insecurity?

Food insecurity, at least as we conceptualize it in the United States, means lacking access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Another way that we sometimes describe it is that you have limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods for your household.

That might mean that you’re running out of money and you’re not sure you’ll have enough to buy more food or even that you’re skipping meals for an entire day.

And are there other questions or standards that are different between kids and adults?

The food security module that’s used in surveys asks questions about both the adults in the household, and children. Having children with food insecurity is less common though because adults tend to shield kids, not surprisingly. But we also know that children living in food-insecure households—even if they perhaps have more adequate resources than their parents—is still related to poor outcomes. So, we’re very concerned if children are identified as directly food insecure, but we also understand that larger universe of kids living in a food insecure household is a risk we should be worried about.

The interactive map breaks down level of food insecurity and related risk factors in each county. Source

The new dashboard has a lot of data in it, like housing costs, income, credit scores—information that people might think of as unrelated to food security. How is this connected to food insecurity?

Fundamentally, food insecurity is an economic and social condition of not having enough resources. And one of the things that we know is that expenses for food compete with other expenses for basic needs. So, for example, families are often in the position of trading off between housing costs and buying food. Or transportation and buying food. Or childcare costs. And food is one of the first things to go in a budget because it’s something that’s more easily changeable than, for example, your rent payment. And in order to really understand the conditions that are contributing to food insecurity and the trade-offs that people are making, it’s important to look at the other pressures that families are facing. So that’s sort of the first part of our thinking about creating the dashboard.

The second part is that we increasingly understand that food insecurity is connected to important outcomes. So, we know that food insecure individuals are at higher risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes. And when they actually develop it, they’re less well-positioned to manage it in terms of being able to eat well and eat regularly. We’re also are just beginning to have some emerging understanding that food insecure individuals are at greater risk for premature death, which is a topic that’s gotten a lot of attention in the last few years.

The goal of the dashboard is to help communities and organizations that are thinking hard about how to disrupt food insecurity. To see these connections in one place and think about the fact that, while federal nutrition programs and food banks are important short-term strategies and longer-term strategies, to really tackle the problem we have to include these other sectors.

Are there geographic differences that the dashboard tracks over time?

The dashboard is a cross-sectional snapshot, so it doesn’t collect data over time. But, let’s step back for a minute and talk about trends. Most of us know that food insecurity hit an all-time high during a short period after the Great Recession. But perhaps what people have not realized is that it’s continued to persist at fairly high levels even as it has begun to slowly inch downward. So, we still have nearly 40 million people in the United States who identify as food insecure. And given that we know that food insecurity is associated with a lot of poor outcomes, that’s very worrisome. So, one of the reasons we wanted to highlight this issue at this time is that, perhaps we’re in a stronger economy, but that’s not consistently true for many people. And, yet this perhaps is a window of time where we can begin to tackle some of these vulnerabilities.

And I think in terms of geography, we present a map that helps people visually see the patterns of food insecurity in the country. But also, they can see that we’ve identified peer groups of counties. And they’re facing multiple challenges that are similar. So, for example, there are some counties that classify as “very high, with multidimensional risks.” These are often rural counties with persistent, long-term poverty. Their issues run the gamut from high unemployment to really poor health outcomes. Thinking about what you might do in that community, it’s probably different than, for example, a more prosperous area that still is challenged by food insecurity, alongside high housing costs.

In fact, when we did some site visits to sort of test out the dashboard approach, we visited one Appalachian county and several of the participants in the focus group remarked that they were really intrigued by the fact that there were communities in very different parts of the country that were facing some of the same challenges and that they would find it more helpful to talk to those communities than, say some that were more nearby but weren’t really facing the same kinds of circumstances. So those are exactly the kinds of conversations that I think we hope to promote.

Our goal was to help people begin to unpack the challenges and think about what their entry points could be. And also, to be able to visually see on a map, well, even though I’m, say, in the southeast, or I’m in Appalachia, I can see that there are counties with similar challenges to me that are in, say Indian country.

How can the dashboard affect strategies that local city, county or state leaders might take for approaching some of those challenges?

One of the things we wanted to use the dashboard to do was to open up the conversation about strategies for different kinds of problems. Obviously we can’t be anywhere near exhaustive in that, but we provide a list of strategies by major topic areas, including physical health, housing and transportation costs, and financial health of the community. And we list promising practices and resources in all of those areas. So it’s a way to get started. It’s not going to provide any sort of ready-made toolbox but we hope that it puts multiple resources in one place and makes those conversations easier to have.

Another thing we emphasized in a companion report that we released in December is how to engage communities directly in using the data in a meaningful way. And by communities we mean residents, but also community leaders and other stakeholders. And so one of the things that that we did in the past year in a half-dozen communities, and that we outlined as something communities can do as well, is to organize data walks. That means bringing key data points about a community, maybe with comparison data from other peer groups, to a group of residents or leaders and asking them to engage and react directly.

For example we did one in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where a lot of the community leaders and elected officials there started up some really robust conversations about transportation barriers, which is not usually the first conversation that comes up when you ask people to talk about food insecurity.

But they could see that households in their area were spending a large part of their incomes on transportation costs. And that led to a conversation about how transportation may be a direct barrier in terms of getting to a grocery or a food pantry, but also how transportation costs eat into peoples’ incomes for affording basic needs.

Data is only one starting point and it’s a great way to allow people to react and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that about my community,’ or, ‘Yeah, that really resonates, and let me tell you why I think that’s happening here,’ or, ‘I don’t think the data fully capture the problem. I think the data probably understates the problem.’

How many of those have you done?

In the past year, we did six—in Austin, Texas; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Perry County, Kentucky; Indiana County, Pennsylvania; Fresno, California; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. And, in each case, I think community residents often either feel ignored or sometimes they just feel talked about—that their opinions and their living experiences aren’t valued at the same level as survey data.

We hope that the dashboard actually provides a mechanism to bring those two things together. Because obviously, engaging directly in conversation about what works in your community is the next step. It’s not enough to just have dots on a map. You need to be able to say, “Well, what would really make a difference here?” or, “Why is it that we think we have the solutions here but people aren’t taking them up?” Those are the kinds of conversations that people know they need to have, but they’re challenging. We hope that this provides some tools to makes those conversations easier to organize.

And we can’t provide national data on all the topics that we know are relevant. So when we do data walks, we also encourage communities to identify other trends and issues in their community that they think should literally be up on the wall. We put big posters up on the wall. And so, in some of the communities we visited, for example, people wanted to have statistics about incarceration. Or they wanted to show the really stark disparities between different racial and ethnic groups with respect to income. Or they wanted to show high foster care placements because they felt that showed a trigger for food insecurity that people needed to talk about.

So, the dashboard gets you started, but then the community can add the issues that they think are most compelling.

What kind of response have you had to the dashboard? 

The initial response was more positive than we had anticipated. And I think the positions people have depend on how they’re using it. So for example, I think foundations or service providers who cover multiple areas find it super useful because they have to think about, what kinds of challenges are communities facing, who has the most significant challenges, what are the characteristics of that community? Then I might prioritize. And it allows them to sort of do that targeting and resource planning through this tool.

On the other hand, a local county might say, “Wow, I didn’t realize this about our county. I didn’t realize we’re considered a high-housing-cost-county even though we’re in the middle of Arkansas.”

And that’s something we really need to, to talk about. So I think it has different uses depending on the point of view, but we felt heartened that there was enthusiasm for all those different levels.

Is there anything else that you want to share?

One of the things that I think is a particular contribution about the dashboard is that it also includes financial health data from credit bureau information for every county in the United States, which is really unusual. We’re lucky in that we have a relationship with a credit bureau—we’re able to access that data that’s not usually available to communities.

So that’s something that we want to draw attention to because if you think about it, a credit score is an indicator of the extent to which people have resources and buffers to fall back on. And if you have a large number of sub-prime credit scores in your area, everybody who is affected by that is probably paying more for a lot of basic expenses than would otherwise be the case. So if you have a sub-prime credit score, you’re paying a lot more for an auto loan. And you may really need a car in order to get to a job.

Or you aren’t able to get a credit card with a decent rate to have in emergencies. And these are the things that a lot of Americans I think take for granted, but they’re really basic financial management strategies. And so I think communities are beginning to talk about what we can do to help improve the financial health of community members. And, how that intersects with peoples’ ability to meet their basic needs. And so, it’s a unique source of information that I think we’re able to bring.

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