Map the Meal Gap is an annual study released by Feeding America to identify food insecurity by county across the country. This study is funded by The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, (son of Warren Buffett), Conagra Brands Foundation and Nielson. The 2018 data has just been released and continues to show a decrease from the previous year, a trend reflected since 2012. In our 8 county region the number of individuals is now 67,960 which is a 3.2% drop from 2017 and a 15.7% drop since 2012 when the number was 80,620. The number of food insecure children dropped as well for 2018 to 19,580 and is a 6.4% drop from 2017 and a 28.2% drop since 2011 when the number was 27,290. This is a positive sign for sure with many contributing factors. If families are able to find living wage employment, then maybe we can see this trend continue.
The county level data for food insecurity has some variation with Delaware County being the highest at 16.9% for all people and Wabash County, the lowest at 12.1%. The data for children has Grant County the highest at 21.9% and Blackford County the least at 18.1%. So with roughly 1 in 6 people and 1 in 5 children struggling on a regular basis so there is still much work to be done.
The common “knee-jerk” reaction to this has typically been for Congress to set their sights on cutting SNAP benefits. This is a hot topic right now as the House version of the Farm Bill that is being crafted as we speak. If the proposed cuts are passed to pay for the recent tax cuts, the impact would affect millions of families who are still in need of the benefit to feed their families on a weekly basis. This program assists families who are elderly, disabled, unemployed, unemployable or who are working but fall under the wage ceiling for the benefits. What is needed is for Congress to change the program to eliminate the “cliff effect” for families. The “cliff effect” is when a family has been receiving SNAP benefits and by getting a small incremental wage increase, which is less than the benefit they have been receiving is then having that benefit completely removed, which puts them in a worse financial position then prior to receiving the wage increase. It has the same impact of getting a raise of $40 more per month that puts you over the earning limit by $10, getting dropped from the program and losing $120 a month in the benefit. A stair step approach to the reduction of the benefit to avoid the “cliff effect” doesn’t seem too difficult a concept to understand, but so far no one in Congress seems to have figured that out. I don’t envy Congress, it must be difficult to develop a positive pathway for struggling families, if that may not get you re-elected. The “cut off” of the current program does not provide struggling families the incentive to progress and become more self-sufficient. SNAP benefits are the most cost efficient way to assist a struggling family. It is way more cost efficient than providing assistance through a food pantry, soup kitchen or a food bank. “The Feeding America nationwide network of food banks works hard to deliver more than 4 billion meals annually to people facing hunger, yet the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) serves 12 meals for every one meal provided through our network,” said Matt Knott, president of Feeding America.
Additionally the new report shows, 25% of East Central Indiana residents who are food insecure make too much money to qualify for SNAP but don’t earn enough to meet their monthly living expenses. ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) families are caught between a rock and a hard place regardless of what happens with SNAP. We’re excited about a downward trend with food insecurity, but much is left to do with families to walk with them toward self-sufficiency.
Tim Kean is the President and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of East Central Indiana. The Second Harvest Food Bank network of 115-member agencies, programs and 22 schools provide food assistance and self-sustainability skills to more than 67,000 low-income people facing hunger in Blackford, Delaware, Grant, Henry, Jay, Madison, Randolph and Wabash Counties.