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Kentucky's Hunger Problem Not Getting Better

This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Tim Thornberry.

While debate goes on in Washington over proposed spending cuts to the nation’s largest food assistance program, legislators in Kentucky recently heard of how great the food insecurity issue is closer to home.

Tamara Sandberg with the Kentucky Association of Food Banks told the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture that funding is needed in the next General Assembly session in order to better meet the needs of hungry Kentuckians.

“The number of people in Kentucky that don’t have consistent access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle remains unacceptable,” she said. “There’s still 750,000 Kentuckians who don’t always know where their next meal is coming from and that works out to about 17 percent of the population or one in six and we just think that is unacceptable in a country that waste billions of pounds of food a year. There is more than enough food for every man, woman and child to have enough to eat.”

Those figures come from the newest research released by Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization. The “Map the Meal Gap” study estimates the rate of food insecurity for both the general population and, separately, for children under the age of 18 and does so with estimates calculated at both the county and congressional-district level for the entire United States, according to information from KAFB which is a partner association of Feeding America.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or what use to be referred to as food stamps, falls under the guidance of the USDA and is funded through farm bill legislation. In fact, about 80 percent of the funding for the entire bill goes toward the nutrition program and not toward agricultural programs.

The recently passed Senate version of the bill is cutting more than $4 billion from SNAP with deeper cuts expected from the House that could amount to $20 billion in reductions. The divide between the two legislative chambers over this issue has held up the bill before and has many conservative groups calling for the farm bill and SNAP regulations to be two different pieces of legislation.

Sandberg said that 40 percent of the 750,000 who suffer from food insecurity in Kentucky don’t even qualify for SNAP.

“As great as the SNAP program is, there are people in Kentucky that are hungry that aren’t qualified for food stamps already and so the concern is, if and when cuts are made to the SNAP program, it’s just going to send more people to food banks to get the food they need to put on their table, and food banks in Kentucky are already struggling to keep up with the demand,” she said. “We feed over 620,000 individual Kentuckians a year and the number has increased 84 percent since 2006. If the SNAP program is cut, it’s only going to drive more people to food banks and they are going to be faced with empty shelves.”

There have been moves by the state legislature to ease the problem. The most recent came in the 2013 session with Senate Bill 1 that contained a provision that would give farmers a 10 percent tax credit on edible agricultural goods they donate to food banks.

In 2009, the Farm to Food Banks bill was passed to help guide surplus goods from state farms to the shelves of food banks located throughout Kentucky. The bill was never funded, but the program has proceeded with the assistance of grant funding coming from sources such as the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund.

More is needed however to meet the demands. Sandberg told legislators that $300,000 in support from the state’s general fund would help the organization better serve those in need. Kentucky is one of 12 states that does not fund food banks though its general fund. She also noted that the response from legislators was very positive during the committee meeting.

As much as the food banks need food, farmers, especially those who have diversified their operations to include more produce, are looking for new venues in which to sell their goods. Sandberg said being able to purchase more food from local producers would help solve two problems.

She pointed out a recent conversation with a farmer trying produce as a way to diversify his farm. Sandburg said the farmer was in need of a market otherwise he would have to return to tobacco as a crop to support his farm.

Of the 750,000 people in Kentucky mentioned in the “Map the Meal Gap” study, 225,000 are children. Sandberg said with school being out for the summer, many of those children don’t have the meals available to them they would have otherwise received through their school lunch programs.

Dr. Craig Gundersen, professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois and the lead researcher of the “Map the Meal Gap” study said there is a particular concerned about children who are undernourished.

“A child who does not receive adequate nutrition may experience behavioral problems, have difficulty concentrating in school, and has an increased risk of medical problems,” he said. “Lack of adequate nutrition in children, for even a brief period of time, may also cause permanent physical and developmental impairments.”

Gundersen also said food insecurity is one of the leading public health challenges in the U.S.

“We undertook this research to demonstrate the extent and prevalence of food insecurity at both the county and congressional-district level,” he said. “This data has the potential to redefine the way service providers and policy makers address food insecurity in the communities they serve.”

Sandberg said she feels as though the problem can be solved in Kentucky but it will be a joint effort by everyone to get it done.

“We believe, together we can solve hunger in Kentucky but it’s going to take all of the partners working together,” she said. “We remain very hopeful that 2014 will be the year that the state of Kentucky helps provide funding to feed struggling citizens.”

To learn more about the “Map the Meal Gap” study, click here. To learn more about the KAFB and its seven food bank members, click here.

Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered Kentucky agricultural and rural issues for various publications since 1995. 

Photo: via Feeding America