Food insecurity persists in rural America as economic recovery is slow to appear

Food insecurity persists in rural America as economic recovery is slow to appear

High unemployment, declining populations, and a lack of public transportation contribute to the rural-urban divide.

Written by: Emily Gallion, Grants & Advocacy Manager and Caitlyn McIntosh, Development Manager

In our cities, we see hunger every day. It looks like a huddle of people waiting for a pantry to open, or cracked hands holding a cardboard sign asking for money for food. It can even look like boards on the windows of a neighborhood’s last remaining grocery store.

Of the top 10 percent of US counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, 76 percent are rural. On average, 15 percent of households living in rural areas are food insecure, compared to 11.8 percent of people living in urban counties.

American economic recovery has made headlines recently: the national unemployment rate has dropped to 3.6% and the Dow Jones has reached record highs. However, economic growth has been patchy. While employment rates in metropolitan areas have surpassed pre-2008 levels, rural areas have not yet recovered.

While employment in metropolitan areas is 10 percent higher than it was in 2007, data from the Economic Research Service shows non metro areas still have not reached pre-recession levels.

The Foodbank serves three counties: Montgomery, Greene, and Preble. Montgomery County is considered an urban (or metropolitan) county. Preble County is a designated rural county. Greene County contains a mix of urban clusters and rural areas, and as a result is often categorized as a suburban or small-town county. Because rural-urban designations are made at the county level, overarching data can sometimes obscure the realities of the people who live in communities within them.

Within Preble county, 12% of adults and 18.8% of children are food insecure, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. Households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity in general, but the trend is especially pronounced in rural communities.

A common theme when discussing rural hunger is the low population density and associated lack of resources. Rural areas have also seen population decreases as individuals move away- often termed “domestic migration.” While metropolitan areas experienced a population growth of over 6 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to American Community Survey data, the most rural areas saw decreases of almost 2 percent, which contributes to the ability of local businesses to remain open.

As a result of these population trends, in addition to difficulty affording food, people who are living in poverty in non-metropolitan areas often report challenges accessing food as grocery stores struggle to remain open.

Data from the Economic Revenue Service shows trends of employment and population growth in rural and urban areas

According to The Ohio State University’s Center for Farmland Policy Innovation (CFPI), 24 percent of residents of rural Ohio have to drive at least 10 minutes to purchase food from a retailer — including convenience stores and other sellers that rarely provide an adequate selection of fresh food. Stores in this category that do sell fresh food have a reputation for doing so at inflated prices.

Additionally, not every household living within driving distance of a retail grocery store has the means to get to it. Of the households living within driving distance from a store, five percent do not own a car, and public transportation is extremely uncommon in non-metro areas.

For example, our clients living in Lewisburg must make the 11 minute drive to a grocery store in Brookville, or even 15 minutes to one in Eaton. However, if you do not have a car then you are left with options from the local convenience store in town, because there is no public transportation available.

Grocery stores are not the only resources that are sparse in rural counties. Nearly one million children living in Ohio’s rural counties live with no access to a pediatrician. This translates to one in three children who have to travel at least 40 minutes to the nearest provider. According to American Community Survey data, 152,000 Ohio children live in a home without a vehicle.

This is especially concerning given the impact food insecurity can have on children’s health. Children who are food insecure face increased rates of obesity, more frequent colds and stomach aches, behavioral health problems, and even developmental problems. Coupled with increased distances from healthcare providers, food insecurity is potentially dangerous for these children.

Knowing the impact food insecurity can have on the health of both children and adults, The Foodbank has taken steps in recent years to increase the availability of food in the rural areas we serve. While we are located in Dayton, we are constantly trying to expand our reach.

In fiscal year 2017, our pantries served a total of 5,056 clients in Preble county. At the close of our most recent fiscal year, we had increased that number to 11,151.

Another program we are using to meet this need is our Mobile Farmers Markets, which distribute fresh food directly in areas we identify as high need. We host four distributions in Preble County each month. This February, our mobiles served 1,157 people in Preble county alone.

For more information on our mobiles, come back for our next blog post about our Mobile Farmers Markets. Have suggestions for what posts you want to see in the future? Learn something cool today? Let us know in the comments below!


Composting begins at The Foodbank

Composting begins at The Foodbank

The finished product will be used in our urban garden, which provides educational opportunities for our community while relieving hunger in our area.

Written by: Emily Gallion, Grants & Advocacy Manager and Caitlyn McIntosh, Development Manager

Over 20 percent of the material in municipal landfills is food. According to the EPA, food waste is the greatest single contributor to solid waste nationwide. While food waste can easily be repurposed into compost, only a fraction – about 6 percent – is put to use in this manner.

It is troubling to see such excessive food waste and food insecurity exist side-by-side. It is estimated that one third of food produced for human consumption is never eaten, and a significant amount of food is wasted for superficial reasons: for example, retailers often cannot sell fruits and veggies that are misshapen, the wrong size, or otherwise unattractive. Meanwhile, in our own community, 116,720 people are living with food insecurity.

Hunger relief organizations such as The Foodbank are in a unique position to address this issue. By “rescuing” food that would otherwise go to waste, we can reduce solid waste while also providing healthy food to those who need it. Food rescue from retailers accounted for 3.5 million pounds of food distributed by The Foodbank in 2019.

Our spoilage rates are incredibly low. Last year, we only lost about 1 percent of the food we acquired. However, considering that we distributed over 16 million pounds of food last year, even 1 percent can make a significant impact. Meanwhile, we were also buying compost for our urban garden and paying for carts to remove food waste from our property. We knew we could do better.

Compost during the stirring process; photo by Tom Greene of Dayton Times Magazine

Many people associate composting with bins of decomposing food — a smelly process that can take upwards of three months. Thanks to generous support from the Ohio EPA, Kroger, Central State University, and a private donor, The Foodbank was able to purchase an in-vessel continuous flow composting unit from Green Mountain Technologies, a US-based company whose mission is helping organizations like us reduce their environmental footprint.

For an organization such as The Foodbank, there are several opportunities associated with composting. The amount of food waste we produce is highly variable, and sometimes we only have a very small quantity of food to dispose of at one time. Odors were a major concern for us, as our garden is often visited by volunteers and children on field trips, and we absolutely could not run the risk of attracting pests – a major food safety hazard.

The unit, constructed from a recycled shipping container, shelters food waste from pests and harsh weather while creating the optimal conditions for composting. A metal auger stirs the compost, exposing it to oxygen and pushing waste through the unit. The consistent temperature and exposure to air means that the compost is finished after 14-21 days, after which it must “cure” in a separate location for 30-60 days.

This continuous-flow model is unique because it is able to move product through the container automatically. In traditional composting, food waste must be processed in large batches, but this is not feasible for food banks, which experience fluctuations in the volume of food waste produced. This unit allows us to add smaller quantities of food each day without disturbing existing compost.

Metal auger stirring compost; photo by Tom Greene of Dayton Times Magazine

While The Foodbank’s mission centers on hunger relief, food banks are in a unique position to address the issue of food waste. There is also a dual benefit associated with the acquisition of the new composter as well: the compost produced can benefit our on-site urban garden. Last year, the garden produced over three tons of fresh produce. 

In addition to producing food for our clients, the garden provides us an opportunity to educate our community. Last year, over 400 students visited our garden. The children we see are primarily low income students from neighboring areas, which are largely urban with limited green space.

The composter will allow us to offer additional educational opportunities to the community. And while our composter is a commercial-grade system made from a large shipping container, composting can be done at any scale in any environment. 

Most of our neighbors live in apartment buildings or houses with very small yards — not ideal environments for large gardens or large shipping containers of compost. Our urban garden has allowed us to teach the community how to use alternative ways of gardening, and we plan to teach alternative ways of composting as well.

Apple represents location of The Foodbank

In addition to the educational advantages of having a composter on site, there is another advantage: the bottom line. In 2018, we spent $8,000 on trash service to dispose of spoiled food, but we were also purchasing compost from other sources for use in the garden. We anticipate seeing a cost savings of $10,000 just from producing our own compost.

We hope to be able to use the unit as a potential revenue stream within the next few years by accepting food waste from other organizations and turning it into a salable product. 

The Foodbank is constantly looking for innovative practices to help us better the community. We are currently one of the only food banks in the nation with its own in-vessel composter. As our program continues to grow, we hope that our successes and failures can serve as a model for how we all can better manage waste.

Visitors are always welcome and encouraged. Contact our Master Gardener James Hoffer at 937-461-0265 ext. 20 or JHoffer@thefoodbankdayton.org to Turnip the Beet with us!


What is the deal with trade mitigation?

What’s the deal with trade mitigation?

The Foodbank receives agricultural surpluses resulting from the Trump Administration’s $1.4 billion Food Purchase and Distribution Program. Here’s what we do with it.

Written by: Emily Gallion, Grant & Advocacy Manger and Caitlyn McIntosh, Development Manager

Hunger relief programs nationwide are familiar with The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which provides a significant amount of food to charitable programs. However, many people are unfamiliar with the program, how it supports food assistance programs, and what impact current events have on the availability of food. We hope the following post will shed some light on the role of TEFAP in The Foodbank’s operations.

In 2018, the Trump administration and the United States Department of Agriculture launched a trade mitigation plan to help farmers affected by trade tariffs enforced by China. This package falls under TEFAP, a larger federal program that purchases unsold food and redistributes it to food assistance programs. This program was launched in 1981 to compensate farmers for agricultural surpluses that were going unsold.

TEFAP food is allocated based upon the number of people living below the poverty line in each state, then sent to food banks, which in turn distribute the product to agencies such as soup kitchens, shelters, and food pantries. Because TEFAP is a federal program, there are special restrictions on which agencies can receive this food. These restrictions vary by state. In Ohio, agencies must attend a civil rights training and complete food safety training, and over half of the population they serve must live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty limit.

While the purpose of the program is to provide support to American farmers, it also provides a significant portion of The Foodbank’s food. In fiscal year 2019, TEFAP product accounted for 22 percent of all food we distributed.

When the 2018 trade mitigation program was first implemented, it designated $1.2 billion to purchase apples, pork, potatoes, and dairy products. On May 2019, those funds were increased to $1.4 billion for the current fiscal year. The Foodbank and other food banks nationwide are receiving additional TEFAP product as a result. Though TEFAP food is just one of the ways we receive our product, trade mitigation has had a significant impact on the types and amount of food we distribute. 

Food we receive through this program is often fresh produce, protein product, and other healthy foods, such as beans and rice. Last year, we received especially high quantities of beans, pork, apples, peanut butter, and fresh milk. In fiscal year 2019, The Foodbank, Inc. distributed over 16 million pounds of food, which was 25 percent more than the previous year. (Many factors outside of TEFAP allocations play a hand in this statistic, including activity related to the Memorial Day tornado outbreak.)

Below is a graph depicting the increase in TEFAP food received by The Foodbank, Inc. before and after the mitigation package was launched. This data reflects all TEFAP food designated as “bonus/other” by our inventory system, which includes some product that is not purchased through trade mitigation, but trade mitigation is ultimately responsible for the upward trend. Despite the fact that we are just over halfway through our fiscal year, we have received almost as much food in this category as last year.

 

*FY20 data reflects food received through mid-January

The trade mitigation program provides a bounty of fresh food, especially high-demand products such as fresh meat. However, the influx of perishable food can pose unique challenges, especially when we receive large quantities of a single product, such as the over 61,000 pounds of garbanzo beans we received this fall.

Turning over redundant loads of product can be difficult, so we have to find solutions to encourage our agencies to pick up trade mitigation product or find additional storage. The increase in trade mitigation product is one of the driving reasons we are currently ordering more shelving. We have also had success with more creative methods of distribution with our own direct service programs, especially our on-site Drive Thru.

The Foodbank’s Drive Thru opened Summer 2018 with funding from Dayton Power and Light. The format has several advantages. First and foremost, it enables clients with mobility issues to obtain food without having to leave their vehicles or carry heavy boxes. We also envisioned it as a way for clients who have already received their maximum allotment from other pantries in our network, which often place limits on the number of times a household can visit in a month.

However, because our Drive Thru is built into our warehouse, it has also proven an important mechanism for distributing products we receive in large quantities. The Drive Thru has become an integral part of our hunger relief strategy. Last fiscal year, the Drive Thru had an attendance of 33,463 people. The Drive Thru was especially critical to our response to the recent tornado outbreak: our monthly attendance reached an all time high of 9,085 people served in June, the month following the disaster – over 5,000 greater than the previous month.

The USDA has not announced a trade mitigation plan for the next fiscal year. As an emergency relief organization, we are always preparing for an ever changing environment and will remain alert to adapt to future changes.