WASHINGTON, July 16, 2020 — The public health and economic crisis created by COVID-19 is exacerbating the already alarming rates of food insecurity in the Southern Region of the United States, according to Hunger, Health, and the Federal Nutrition Programs: A Profile of the Southern Region, a new report released today by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). The report analyzes poverty rates, food insecurity levels, health disparities, racial inequities, and federal nutrition program participation in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The findings suggest increased participation in federal nutrition programs is critical to addressing the struggle against hunger.
“Many individuals in the Southern Region of the country live with the crushing burdens of food insecurity, poverty, and limited opportunities, and the public health and economic fallout of COVID-19 are only making matters worse,” said Luis Guardia, president of FRAC. “People who experience food insecurity often need to make difficult decisions like choosing between food and medicine or food and rent. When people have a hard time putting food on the table, it not only harms them, it has costly implications on our nation’s economy and health system.”
Federal nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school meals, after school, summer, and child care meals are critical to mitigating the struggle against hunger and the resulting negative health outcomes such as diabetes and obesity. These programs also support economic security, help lift families out of poverty, and act as a stimulus for local economies.
Yet, the report finds serious gaps in participation in these programs in southern states in recent years and programs are still reaching too few eligible people in the region.
SNAP is the nation’s first line of defense against hunger, but many SNAP-eligible people in the Southern Region are missing out on its benefits. When compared to other states and their reach with SNAP-eligible people, three Southern Region states, Arkansas (46 percent), Virginia (43 percent), and Kentucky (42 percent), ranked in the top 10 states for worst participation rates and no Southern Region states ranked in the top 10. This trend is also seen throughout the country and is impacted by several factors, including a decrease in the poverty rate before COVID-19. Louisiana experienced a 14 percent decrease in participation and became the only Southern Region state that had a less severe decrease in participation from 2013–2018, compared to the rest of the U.S. (21 percent).
Participation in the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Nutrition Programs, and child care suppers increased but did not meet FRAC’s national participation benchmarks.
The study also reveals millions of children are missing out on the many established benefits of WIC. According to the report, 1.6 million women, infants, and children in the Southern Region participated in WIC in 2019. However, almost 2 million eligible individuals in the Southern Region, mostly children, were not enrolled in WIC. These children are missing out on the many established benefits of WIC. Expanding the program has the potential to bring considerably more funding into the Southern Region states.
- During 2018 nearly 12 million individuals in the Southern Region lived in poverty, the root cause of hunger.
- The household food-insecurity rate was higher in the Southern Region (12 percent) than in the rest of the country (11 percent).
- Six of the 10 highest state household food insecurity rates are in the Southern Region with Mississippi at 15.9 percent, Louisiana at 15.8 percent, Arkansas at 15.1 percent, Alabama and Kentucky at 14.7 percent, and North Carolina at 13.9 percent.
- Food insecurity burden falls heavily on Black and Hispanic populations in the deep South. Nearly 1 in 10 White households experienced food insecurity in 2018 compared with about 1 in 7 Hispanic households and more than 1 in 5 Black households.
- Disparities in employment outcomes and wages further exacerbate racial and ethnic inequities for income, poverty, and economic security. Among the Southern Region, Alabama (18 percent), Louisiana (18 percent), Mississippi (17 percent), South Carolina (17 percent), Kentucky (12 percent), Florida (12 percent), North Carolina (12 percent), and Georgia (11 percent) have White-minority wage gaps greater than the U.S. average (10 percent).
In light of COVID-19, the federal nutrition programs are a critical way to support and improve the health and economy in Southern Region states, according to FRAC.
“COVID-19 makes even more urgent the need to reach and support vulnerable, yet underserved, populations,” added Guardia. “Food insecurity rates are especially high among key vulnerable groups, especially groups that have been victims of long-standing discriminatory treatment or that suffer disproportionately from low wages, high unemployment, and inadequate public support programs.”
As states continue to feed vulnerable and underserved populations during the pandemic, expanding outreach and lowering unnecessary state and local barriers are critical to improving participation. The report includes recommendations for state and local governments to adopt in order to connect more people with federal nutrition programs as the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis continues.
“More must be done to support and safeguard personal well-being and the economy throughout the southern states, and throughout the country,” said Guardia. “The time to act is now.”
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The Food Research & Action Center is the leading national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States. To learn more, visit FRAC.org and follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.