Hunger in America: Food insecurity disproportionately affects African-Americans

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New research on food insecurity in the U.S. finds that African-Americans are disproportionately affected, with over 25 percent of all black households lacking access to enough food to live a healthy lifestyle.

The data stems from a recent study called “Map the Meal Gap,” set to be released Monday by Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.

“Millions of Americans live at risk of hunger,” says Bob Aiken, Feeding America’s president and CEO.

Research shows that many of the millions Aiken mentions are black families who lack the income or resources necessary to maintain a healthy diet or gain access to food.

As a result, the organization says, one in three African-American children live in food insecure households where many are families served by Feeding America or its affiliates.

African-Americans disproportionately affected by food insecurity

The data compiled and distributed by Feeding America comes from raw national statistics provided by the federal government, then analyzed by the organization’s researchers on a congressional district and county level.

Results of this year’s “Meal Gap” study — the third done by the organization — show a number of African-Americans who are food insecure – with black households more than twice as likely to face food insecurity as white, non-Hispanic homes.

More specifically, research states that of the 104 U.S. counties with a majority black population, 92 percent of these counties also record high food insecurity rates.

This includes counties in many of the southern states including Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina. For example, the Meal Gap study found that the food insecurity rate in Jefferson County, MS was 34.4 percent; versus 28.2 percent in Macon County, Alabama; 26.6 percent in Petersburg City, VA; 33 percent in Allendale County; 30.6 percent in East Carroll Parish, LA; Dougherty County, GA, 27.5 percent and Lee County, SC 25 percent.

Even in counties considered bastions of more affluent black communities, food insecurity can be found. Prince Georges County, Maryland has a food insecurity rate of 15.6 percent while New York County, which includes New York City, has a rate of 16.3 percent.

“We serve 1.5 million residents across all five boroughs,” Triada Stampas, the senior director of government relations for the Food Bank for New York City, tells theGrio. “A large portion or a majority of those are people of color.”

Unemployment and poverty: two major drivers of food insecurity

Researchers say much of this can be attributed to high unemployment and poverty levels among African-Americans. Data shows that unemployment is significantly higher among blacks than whites and that in 2011, blacks were almost twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.

“Poverty and unemployment are the two major drivers for food insecurity,” Emily Engelhard, director of social policy research and analysis for Feeding America tells theGrio. “High poverty and unemployment disproportionately affects African-Americans.”

Engelhard says the number of people who are food insecure drastically increased in 2008 due in large part to the crash in the housing market and the economic downturn.

“We saw a huge jump in food insecurity levels nationwide in 2008; it went from 36 percent to 49 percent,” Ross Fraser, director of media relations for Feeding America, tells theGrio.

With the shuttering of many businesses and large numbers of layoffs during the 2008 recession, unemployment rose to 7.2 percent from 4.9 percent the year before, and it reached 10 percent by December 2009.

Today, with the unemployment rate back down to 7.5 percent, Labor Department data shows the current unemployment rate for African-Americans is still high. At 13.2 percent, the percentage of unemployed blacks is the highest among all racial groups.

Estella Mayhue-Greer, president and CEO of the Mid-South Food Bank in Mississippi, says unemployment deeply impacts the counties her organization serves.

“When the housing industry went under it had a great impact and left many people unemployed, primarily people of color,” Mayhue-Greer tells theGrio. “It’s a struggle; African-Americans are the first ones to be laid off most of the time and I see it over and over again.”

Other contributing factors to food insecurity among African-Americans

Other factors also contribute to the high number of blacks who do not have regular access to food.

Frasser lists lack of public transportation as one reason. He says that 40 percent of the people Feeding America helps serve do not have access to a car, which limits their ability to travel to grocery stores or food bank service locations.

Lack of education is another big factor, Mayhue-Greer says.

“A lot of people don’t have GEDs or high school diplomas, particularly in the south. Education is a problem,” she adds. “People who worked at factories and have that as their only skill, don’t know how to find jobs.”