Feeding America reports that people living in rural communities often face hunger at higher rates than people who live in urban areas. In fact, 2.2 million households in rural communities face hunger (Feeding America). Further, rural communities make up 63% of counties in the United States and 87% of counties with the highest rates of overall food insecurity. No Kid Hungry states that economic instability, lack of job opportunities, and geographic isolation are the main contributors to this issue. Rates of unemployment are higher in rural areas and good-paying jobs are hard to come by. Further, some employment opportunities are seasonal. This means that money has to be stretched through the off-seasons. Also, public transportation is either nonexistent or minimal in these areas. So, it can be difficult and expensive to travel to grocers, food pantries, food banks, and farmer’s markets. This geographic isolation also results in limited options for food, minimizing opportunity for healthy choices.
According to a report by the Urban Institute, many rural communities are implementing creative strategies to combat food insecurity in their area. Some of these strategies include increasing the use of federal benefits by improving coordination between nutrition assistance agencies and communities, developing a universal screening tool to determine eligibility for any nutrition program services, and providing program referrals. In 2016, The USDA Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center at the University of Kentucky awarded $1.3 million in grants to help reduce child food insecurity by improving coordination among child nutrition programs in 17 rural communities. The funding ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 and was granted to organizations in the rural communities that would implement creative strategies to improve food security. For example, Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma used grant funds to develop a universal screening tool to determine eligibility for nutrition program services. Additionally, The University of Tennessee used funds for a project that increased participation in food assistance programs working with child care providers, Head Start, and Pre-K programs. Such strategies encompass effective, beneficial solutions for rural areas.
More than 11 million children face food insecurity in the United States (Feeding America). There are serious mental and physical health implications for children facing food insecurity. Research has uncovered that food insecurity is connected to delayed development in young children, the risk of chronic illnesses, and behavioral problems like hyperactivity, anxiety, and aggression in school-age children (Feeding America). Since children are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, it is vital to improve the reach of child nutrition assistance programs. The Urban Institute emphasizes that federal child nutrition programs play a critical role in addressing food insecurity among young and school-age children. One solution includes the utilization of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, which can reduce stigma and maximize participation in school breakfast programs. “Grab and go” breakfast can be extremely beneficial at schools. These meals can be eaten outside the cafeteria or in the classroom and would be extra helpful for students in rural areas with long commutes to school. Additionally, implementing universal eligibility for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs would optimize the number of children fed. Universal eligibility would give all students free breakfasts and lunches, without eligibility requirements. This would lower the stigma surrounding free meals, and directly combat food insecurity for children in rural areas.
Lastly, rural areas can address geographic isolation by exploring community transportation strategies. One solution can include a mobile operation that brings affordable food or other needed goods and services to the community. Feeding America offers a Mobile Food Pantry Program that directly serves clients in areas of high need by supplementing other hunger-relief agencies in that area. The Mobile Pantry provides a truckload of food to be distributed to clients in pre-packed boxes or through a farmers market-style distribution where clients choose to take what they need. Rural communities can also experiment with affordable ride-sharing options that can be tailored to rural areas. An example of this is the Dakota Area Resource Transportation Services Vehicle Coordination Program (DARTS), which is a vehicle sharing program in Dakota County, Minnesota. DARTS is a community-based nonprofit that aims to connect community members to resources that “help them remain active and connected to their community.” DARTS often lends buses to local non-profit organizations that connect community members to resources they need. For example, the organization provided a bus to area churches to provide rides to church for residents unable to drive. Further, a ride-share program like DARTS could drive individuals to emergency food providers like food pantries.
Solutions to food insecurity in rural areas require the intersection and participation of several actors. The utilization of federal programs and benefits could greatly benefit rural communities. Further, transportation-related strategies directly address the unique challenges facing rural communities. These are two actionable solutions that rural areas should consider while combating food insecurity.
By: Megan Miller