As Thanksgiving approaches, it is important to remember the one in five North Carolina households that face food insecurity and struggle to put wholesome meals on their dinner tables. 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 too few jobs, a boom in low-wage work, and income growth that is bypassing the average family and going to the top earners.
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.
Food insecurity levels rose sharply during the Great Recession but have not improved since then. Approximately 17 percent of North Carolinians struggle with food insecurity, according to the USDA (see chart below). On this measure, the average North Carolinian fares worse than the average American and, as a state, North Carolina has the fifth highest level in the nation, behind only Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee. Three of North Carolina’s four neighboring states have lower levels of food hardship.
The USDA breaks down overall food insecurity into two categories: low food security and very low food security.
Eleven 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 those instances 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. Two of North Carolina’s metropolitan areas made the top?ten list for highest food hardship rates out of the top 100 metropolitan areas in the country in 2011-2012, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Greensboro?High Point had the third?highest food?hardship rate in the country (23 percent), followed by Asheville at the ninth?highest (21.8%). 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 at Thanksgiving, or any time of the year, is not inevitable. Policy choices are available to put the state’s families, communities, and economy on a stronger path. Last year federal lawmakers allowed a temporary boost in SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, to expire even though this program connects many low-income North Carolinians with the support to purchase the food that their families need to develop and grow. State lawmakers also raised taxes on the average family, allowed the state Earned Income Tax Credit to expire, and drastically reduced unemployment benefits for jobless workers.
Until public policies are put in place to close the job shortage, raise wages, and spread the economic gains broadly, keeping a robust safety net system is required to alleviate food insecurity and keep poverty in check. Creating more barriers to economic security or food assistance will do nothing to reduce hunger and food insecurity in the Old North State.