‘It wasn’t my turn to have dinner’ haunting reminder of hunger in Mississippi – Jackson Clarion Ledger

The quote in last Sunday’s story about the new UMMC anti-hunger initiative was haunting. A young child asked what she had for dinner the previous evening responded, “Last night, it wasn’t my turn to have dinner.”

Feeding America has recently released its 2017 Map the Meal Gap report and, no surprise, the state with the highest percentage of both child and overall food insecurity is Mississippi. Our state’s overall food insecurity rate is 21.5 percent or over 1 in 5 Mississippians. The state’s child food insecurity rate is 26.3 percent or over 1 in 4 Mississippi children. Feeding America defines food insecurity as living in a household without consistent access to adequate food.

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Although the number of Americans whose household budget won’t stretch to get food on the table every day of every month has fallen since the Great Recession, food insecurity and poverty are still higher in the U.S. than in 2007 before the crash.

As Warren Buffett’s son Howard Buffett writes in the report’s foreword, “42 million Americans may not know where they will find their next meal.” Buffett asks that the report, which his foundation supports, be used to “advocate for hunger relief and spreading awareness of hunger in the U.S.”

There are lots of myths about the 42 million Americans going hungry in this land of plenty. One is: They can’t be hungry, they’re fat! The truth is, as hunger experts know full well, calories are cheap but nutrition is expensive. When families cannot afford or do not have good food choices available, they will fill up on cheap, calorie-dense food with poor nutritional value that can result in obesity. Nutritious food is too often neither affordable nor accessible for low-income families.

Another myth is that food stamps or SNAP is a working safety net for families struggling with food insecurity. In fact, as the Feeding America report details, help from SNAP is often hard to get; 26 percent of Americans who are food insecure live in families whose income is too high to qualify for SNAP or other federal food assistance programs.

SNAP eligibility thresholds are set by each state. In Mississippi, the maximum income level for a family of four to qualify for SNAP benefits is $31,590, and not all families whose income would qualify them for SNAP are enrolled. In our state in 2016, 19 percent of us got help from SNAP to feed our families. Of that number, 22 percent live below the federal poverty level.

One more myth is that if families do not have enough money to put food on the table, they are not working hard enough. The truth is that the adults in food insecure families are most often working hard, but their wages are so low they simply will not cover even the essentials.

The Feeding America report finds that high rates of food insecurity are tied to areas with poor employment opportunities and high levels of unemployment. No surprise those areas also have high rates of poverty, underemployment and stagnant wages.

Looking at food insecurity at the county level, the report finds that Mississippi counties are five of the 13 U.S. counties with the highest rates of food insecurity. These 13 counties also have high unemployment and high and persistent levels of poverty. The three counties with the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation are Yazoo County at 26.4 percent, Hinds County at 25.9 percent and  Oktibbeha County at 24.6 percent. Counties with high food insecurity nationwide tend to be rural and are clustered mainly in the Southeast.

Food deserts contribute to the problems low-income parents have getting sufficient and nutritious food for themselves and their children. Food deserts are apt to be in rural areas that simply do not have good grocery stores or other places to get fresh produce.

The results of food insecurity are apparent in the 25 percent of American young people who drop out of the military because they are not fit to fight, in the $200 billion a year spent on food-related health problems and in the well-documented decline in academic progress when children do not get enough nutritious food to eat.

The Feeding America report was released before the Trump budget plan was announced by the White House. The Trump budget provides large tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent, but would slash the SNAP budget by 25 percent over the next decade.

If our nation is to make true and lasting progress toward ending hunger in America, especially child hunger, this budget won’t do it. It would instead send us backward and result in more children without adequate nutrition.

Lynn Evans is a former Jackson School Board member and a contributing columnist.

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