Episode 5. Food for Thought - Facing the Facts About Food Insecurity
Intro: Hello, and welcome to a new episode of The Rural Impact, the podcast where we help to connect the dots between policy and rural everything. I'm Michelle Rathman, and I'm so appreciative that you joined us for a new episode. Of course, we are now in our second episode in a series that we're calling Food for Thought.
It's all focused on food insecurity in rural places. Before we get into today's discussion, I just want to remind you of a few statistics. Rural hunger stats in America, we're showing that 11% of rural households were food insecure in 2021. Let me say that again, 11% of rural households were food insecure in 2021.
And I would wonder what that number looks like today. Another really important statistics when we're talking about this is that 63% of all counties in the United States are rural and 87% of counties with the highest food insecurity rate are in rural. So, because we're talking about these kinds of numbers, we need to be talking about it.
With that said, I do want to share with you kind of an update of some of the travels that I've had and we're going to start to bring you some of these conversations from the road pretty here soon here as well. But I was out in a very rural remote community working last week. And as a part of my work I worked to help convene and facilitate a community visioning session around what it could look like to have a healthier community.
And in those discussions, and I will share with you, participants in the room included the mayor, the sheriff, of course, the hospital leader, several leaders from the hospital. We had the school superintendent, the individual who is working with veterans, so on and so forth. So this is a really spirited room of community leaders and people who really want to make a difference.
And towards the beginning of the session, one of the questions I asked them to ponder was, to just find out how many of you understand the prevalence of food security in your own community. And it won't surprise you that no one could really understand or could answer that question with a hard number.
And that doesn't surprise me because I wonder if you can ask, answer that question. Do you know how many people in the county that you're in are actually food insecure?
Well, because we don't really have the numbers to those to that question, I want to tell you that in this conversation, in this Rural Impact conversation, you are going to hear from two experts who talk about the census track level data that's used to help determine food access.
And we're also going to explore behavioral responses to food insecurity. In other words, we're going to do our best to connect that to a whole lot of different subjects where this is concerned. Thank you. So, with that said, I had the great privilege of talking with Elena Roan and Matthew P. Rabbitt. Each of them are economists in the Food Assistance Branch in the Food Economics Division, which is within the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, also known as USDA ERS.
So here now is my conversation, our second episode of the Rural Impact focused on food security. Let's go.
Michelle Rathman: Wow. We're so grateful to have you both here with us. Matthew and Alana. This is a really important conversation as I've teed up this episode. It's our second in our series on rural food insecurity. And so Alana, I'm going to kick this out to you first because, you know, the numbers are staggering.
And as I kind of introduced it in the intro I think it's really important for people to know that we've got as of 2019 4.7 million households in the U.S. did not have access to a vehicle and lived far from a food store. And because I work in so many rural places it's shocking to me sometimes how far you have to go to purchase your food.
And then of course the accessibility. piece of being affordable and whatnot. So I'd like to just kick off with you because your work is very unique. It fascinates me, actually. So, in the division that you work with the United States Department of Agriculture, it's all about economic research. So, talk to us about your research work and how it's connected to food insecurity.
Alana Rhone: Yes. So I am an agricultural economist within the Food Economics Division Food Assistance Branch, and my area of research focuses on food access in the United States. I'm also the data product manager of two mapping tools that we have. One is called the Food Access Research Atlas. which allows users to investigate access to food stores at the census tract level.
And when I say census tract, it's similar to the size of a neighborhood. So you can think of that similar to the size of a neighborhood that, you know, people may live in. It looks at income, distance to a store, and also vehicle access. The second data product that I mentioned is called the Food Environment Atlas.
And it looks at the food environment. It has over 280 indicators. Looking over three broad categories one being health and well being, food access, and also looking at components of a community's composition of demographics and things like that. And those. That information we have farmers markets in there.
So it takes into account all of the different indicators of the food environment.
Michelle Rathman: Yeah, I was noting, and looking through all of the research information that I was able to find on these products, if you will, these tools that you have, I guess my question would be, because our focus is to really understand, you know, what's happening on the rural stage, if you will, based on your findings.
Can you describe a little bit about the prevalence of food insecurity in rural households, both with and without children and the elderly. And I will preface it by saying in our first episode, we talked with the folks from the food research and action council, and, you know, they were talking to us about school and not a programs.
We know that those fill some gaps, but what are you seeing with your research, as I said, in terms of the prevalence of food insecurity in rural communities, and I think when you say cities, but in some places, you could take a snapshot of the whole county and see that there are some significant challenges.
Alana Rhone: Correct. Overall, in 2019, 40% of the U.S. population lived more than one mile from the nearest food store. Limited access to healthy and affordable food may make it harder for some people in the United States to achieve a healthy diet and also food security.
Distance, lack of transportation, limited resources could impact the choice of stores at which a household or a person, you know, may choose to shop the time and monetary costs. It may take the travel to the, to a particular food store, having a vehicle is important, you know, to get to a food store in some areas.
And also it also limited access can also impact the frequency that a household or a person may do their shopping. So, each of these things could reduce food security and that quality I, my components, I look at, you know, geospatial food access Matthew, my colleague that's also on here looks at food and security.
And, you know, like income and things like that
Michelle Rathman: Sure, sure. I think it's so interesting because until you travel to some of the communities and really understand, because if you live somewhere and you've got lots of options you don't see. And I actually was having a conversation with someone this weekend and I was talking about the fact that we're doing this series on food insecurity and through no fault of their own just not really understanding if it doesn't touch you it's out of sight is out of mind and the response was you mean like food insecurity like you know afraid they're not gonna be able to eat.
I said, well, that's part of it, And so Matthew I this is where I really want to bring you in because your research work is focused on primarily on food security measurement and methodology, behavioral responses to food insecurity, and the U. S. Social Safety Net program participation. That's a lot. So if you could just kind of start with measurement and methodology, and then let's kind of move into the work focused on behavioral responses, because that's also a factor that I don't think enough people understand the connections between those two subject matters.
Matthew Rabbitt: Sure, absolutely. So just give you a little bit of background. I'm a research economist in the Food Economics Division at the Economic Research Service where I focus on the measurements and methodology related to domestic food security. And so just as it might be helpful for listeners to think about USDA defines food security as access at all times to enough food for all household members.
And when we talk about measuring food insecurity, we're really referring to the administration of a series of 18 questions that are eliciting information about households experiences and behaviors when they're having difficulty meeting their basic food needs because of a lack of economic resources for food.
And so, we administer 10 of these questions to all households in the United States. And an additional eight questions about child food hardship to households with children.
Michelle Rathman: Wow. I can imagine the findings. I mean, I, when you see the findings, it has to, I think about why do the research and connecting the dots between research and data, and then putting some of the resources in place that are required to address these disparities. So, we talk about that. I mean, right. great measurement methodology.
Then we move into the behavioral responses because being food insecure has so many other implications. And if you could just talk to us a little bit about that as well, because I'll just share with you you know, I was reading it, as I said, that there was a report from in the National Library of Medicine from April of 23.
And this was a cohort of from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, the Division of Behavioral Health and Social Sciences. And it goes on and on and on. So a lot of smart people around the table and what they wrote in this, policy impact and future directions around behavioral economics was safety nets benefits.
In 2021, there was 37. 9 million people or 11. 6% of the U. S. population lived in poverty, defined as having an income of less than 27, 740 for a family of four or just over 13,700 for an individual. And the point being here is that in the absence of these safety net programs like that, which addresses food insecurity, it's estimated that the numbers that I just read would be far greater than what we're talking about here.
So in the context of your work, let's just talk about the behavioral responses to food insecurity and some of the things that you're finding and some insights around that subject.
Matthew Rabbitt: So food insecure households will do various things to mitigate their food insecurity. And so, one of the things they can do is they can choose to participate in one of the many federal food assistance programs. Alternatively, they could also choose to participate in private food assistance programs as well.
According to our most recent annual food security report, in 2021, 56% of all food insecure households chose to participate in one, at least one of the three largest food and nutrition assistance programs which includes SNAP, WIC, and the National School Lunch Program.
Michelle Rathman: Right. Okay. So that's one way, that's one way to address it. And then for those who are not, you know, if you are eligible, and that's where I'm kind of curious about the gap, if one is eligible to receive those benefits and you know, because they have access, they can, they know they can find a way to navigate it.
What are you finding in terms of maybe the root cause of why people aren't accessing those programs? Any insight that you can share on that note?
Matthew Rabbitt: So, my research focuses on primarily the documentation of the prevalence and severity of food insecurity in the United States with some work evaluating the effectiveness of SNAP. My work does not specifically look at the uptake of these programs in particular. However, I can refer you to some colleagues that would provide important insights in that area.
Michelle Rathman: Yeah. A lot of times I just feel like it's navigation. It's just, it can be so complicating and you know, Alana, I think the work that you do is also. Really important because of the you know, helping people understand how to connect the dots between data and using your tools. And I did happen to note that you participated in and led a workshop in 2022 called the data training webinar.
And I think about it in context of how much a community and its leaders actually know about their food insecurity. And I was kind of sharing with Matthew before we started. I was at a community last week, very remote part of the state of Washington. And I asked the community leaders who were there, Do you understand how your numbers?
Do you understand, you know, how many people in your county, or at least in the service area that they are a part of, are food insecure? So let's just talk a little bit about how your mapping tools can help people close to home. You know, you don't have to be in some research center somewhere. How can community leaders use this information to help address these disparities?
Alana Rhone: Here at the Economic Research Service, we have a range of research and data resources like the Food Access Research Atlas and also the Food Environment Atlas, which can help identify and inform possible solutions that work best for their community challenges to healthy food access. Increase or, you know, decrease with distance to different food stores.
And also, solutions are likely to be different for urban and rural areas. What may work in one area may not work for the next. So that's why we have the Food Access Research Atlas and the Food Environment Atlas, where they can, using the mapping tool, they can search by their, specific address they can search by a city or even their county and look and see what is around them.
What? What does their food access and what does their food environment look for them? Using the Food Access Research Atlas community planners and leaders have also used the Atlas to determine if, you know, a community garden may be, may work best in the area that has limited food store access.
There may not be, a food store that is near to people, but that may be a good place where a community garden or an urban garden may play in. So that's just one way that the Food Access Research Atlas has been used.
Michelle Rathman: Thank you. Matthew, I'm also curious because you, along with a few other authors published a report focused on household food security in the United States back in 21. So, this is a year after, I hate to say the P word, but, you know, as we were amidst the pandemic, right? The report looks at metro and non-metro with rural being included in the non-metro data.
So, I guess I wonder what are some of your more notable non metro findings You know, are we able to pick up some trends? There are some similarities that would be of interest to our listeners who are kind of focused on rural solutions.
Matthew Rabbitt: So we actually monitor food insecurity annually since 1995 at the Economic Research Service. And so we do produce an Annual Food Security Report. And as part of that, we do take a deep dive into the prevalence and severity of food insecurity trends over time and differences by subpopulations in the United States, including the rural urban classification system.
And so, in terms of rural households one of the interesting findings we have is that food insecurity was lower in suburban areas than in principal cities and rural areas. And that food insecurity was also lower in rural areas and principal cities. And so, you know, we are seeing that depending on where you are on the rural urban continuum, that there are these potential differences in the risk factor for food insecurity.
Michelle Rathman: Interesting. I would just imagine that your data, both of you, so much of your work can help drive decision making that helps us understand where there is resources needed to address the gaps. And I think about that because I do think, again, we're all about connecting the dots. And I wonder... just from each of you, if you could just talk to us a little bit about how data from your research can be used to help people make more local decisions that impact, I mean, so you take a look at it, you see that your food insecure, you know, you've identified that you're a certain distance from restaurants, grocery stores, you're looking at that, you know, the household data.
What are some of the things that you could share with our listeners to help them understand how to use the data to help drive solutions? Because I think sometimes that's where we don't have that connector. Either one of you.
Matthew Rabbitt: So, as is the case with many challenges, the more that 1 understands the issue at hand. the more equipped that we are to respond to it. And so true to our mission at ERS, we're publishing a variety of research and data and charts on food insecurity and food access that can help us to inform and enhance decision making in terms of food security of rural and beyond households.
Michelle Rathman: What about in the work that you're seeing just with the Food Access Research Atlas? Because I'm looking at, you know, All of the great indicators, all the great data that you can extract from that, but I'm just curious how maybe you've even seen an example of how the data is being used you know, through your training, how it's being used to affect change, positive change at that.
Alana Rhone: Correct. The Food Access Research Atlas in particular has been used in several ways. One, as I mentioned, like on the community level, you can look and see if, you know, I could say this may be area where a store could possibly be or where a community garden or something like that could be.
Also, users have used the Atlas. There are some grants out there to where that if you do live in a in an area that has limited food access, it can be used to help, to bring in solutions to fill in that gap of food access. For example, policies such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative helps identify and also target communities that have limited food store access and it provides loans and grants to develop grocery stores and other healthy food retailers.
Also if rural community members would like to better understand, you know, food access, as Matt mentioned, ERS does have a variety of tools and resources that can help assist with more awareness and also understanding.
Michelle Rathman: And I think also maybe I just think about other ways to plug in with the work that I do is, you know, getting people and finding people who are interested in participating, you know, to drive these discussions locally. And Matthew, I just thought about something because both of you, I mean, you talked about the questions that you put out there and that the data is coming from the different census tracts.
I think this is something that we could kind of make the case for understanding why it's so important to provide, like, you shouldn't pull teeth for this information, like, you got to rely on the information that's coming back to you based on people voluntarily participating and sharing their data. Is that correct?
Matthew Rabbitt: Yes, the food security data that we are speaking about today and that is in the annual food security report and other related research outputs is based on survey respondents to the CPS food security supplement. So that's the current population survey that's administered by the Census Bureau on a monthly basis and includes things like the unemployment statistics that we frequently look at.
However each December. We have a special supplement to that basic CPS that allows us to assess food insecurity in the United States as well as the uptake of food assistance programs. And so that is completely reliant on individuals making the decision to provide that information to survey survey takers.
Michelle Rathman: Thank you. You know, I also wonder, because as I mentioned Alana, you did the data training webinar. Who is the audience for that? I'm curious. I mean, I watched it on YouTube. I watched, but I'm just wondering who else is joining you. I, I would imagine for people who are, data wants that this would be interesting to them, but I'm peculiar who you're targeting.
It's peculiar to me. I'd like to know who you're targeting and, you know, and are these things that you routinely share? Because I know it's, this shouldn't be the best kept secret. I think more people should know about these tools. They're important.
Alana Rhone: Yes I love sharing the Food Access Research Atlas and the Food Environment Atlas and the data and the work that ERS does whenever, whenever I can but in regards to the data training webinar it was open to the public. So we try to make our mapping tools and our research understandable to the general public because the community, planners and community leaders, or even public policymakers that they can use the access to better understand what's going on in their community so they can identify these communities that have limited food star access and help target where programs or policies may be the most needed.
So one way that they using the Food Access Research Atlas and the mapping tool, you cannot only look and see if the area that you are trying to focus on is a low income and low access area, but you can also look at the change. So you can see if, in 2015, if it, improves in access to 2019, you can also use the Food Environment Atlas and you can look at the change of grocery stores between the years or the number of farmer's markets, or what the different things that a farmer's market may offer. Does a farmer's market, does it accept SNAP benefits?
And where, how many farmer's markets accept SNAP benefits? All of the information can be found using those mapping tools.
Michelle Rathman: And I did read somewhere that there is an exclusion for a couple of different kinds of stores. So will you clarify me on that there? You, it, you don't account for, like I said, the last episode. You can't really put together a healthy meal from a gas station. I suppose you could try, but so there is a few provisions that of the kinds of stores that you're excluding, correct?
Alana Rhone: In the Food Access Research Atlas, we use large grocery stores, super centers, and supermarkets as our proxies for healthy and affordable foods.
Michelle Rathman: But not like, um, you know, some of the smaller and I won't name any by name, but they're kind of, they're popping up everywhere and they're not really best known for having produce and things of that nature. So they are excluded, correct?
Alana Rhone: yes, so, the store types that are excluded are we do not include commissaries or warehouse club stores just warehouse club stores, commissaries, you know, you have to be either a part of the military or, a spouse or a family of military to attend, that type of store and then wholesale warehouse club stores you know, you have to pay a little bit of money to become a member.
So we like to use stores that everyone has, you readily available access to. And we also exclude convenience stores, dollar stores and also smaller grocery stores. Part of our, when we're looking at the different store types we like to be able to also do manual searches. So we like to be able to look at, the foods.
When you walk into the, to the grocery store and they have the little pamphlets of what they offer, we like to look that up on the store. So, different stores that have a variety of food store that have fresh produce, that have frozen fruit and produce also has grocery items. So we take into account all of that and also meat in deli choices as well.
Michelle Rathman: I just, I think about in my head, all the rural grocery stores I've been to or the places I've been to where I search for someplace to, to get some groceries. And it's just something, I mean, I don't have to live it every day, but it is very, very much a focus of my work because I'm also thinking about, you know, Matthew talked about all the number of the series of questions that you ask.
And in the context of, health outcomes. You know, when a child comes in for a well visit and even adults, there's like, I think, two specific questions that talk about food security. One is, have you had something to eat today? And the second question revolves around whether or not you have a fear of not having enough money for the rest of the month.
Those are data points. I'm curious about for rural health organizations to instead of I mean, it's important to ask the questions to individual patients and caregivers, but what that could mean for them in doing their social determinative of health work to just take a look at the food access research atlas, then do use the mapping pool tools so that they have a better handle on what it looks like in their service area.
That's could be, maybe you've heard that folks are relying on that to improve health outcomes, but I'm just planting the seed. If people, if health leaders don't know about this tool, I think it's an important use of it, for their efforts. What do you think?
Matthew Rabbitt: So, I mean, there's always value in collecting new data in terms of learning new insights. And so, you know, as part of our mission to ERS, we support individuals decisions to collect their own food security data. And we actually have an entire topic page dedicated to food security measurement, or we discuss the different ways that you can assess an individual, or in this case, it'd be actually a household food security status.
And so. You know, I would refer individuals to that web page because that would be a strong resource for any kind of group that's interested in collecting their own food security data.
Michelle Rathman: Thank you both. The last question I'm gonna ask each of you, because the, I think also this is important because you are a part of a inarguably, a very large agency, and I mean, I just love learning all about the various entities within the USDA What is the motivation behind the work that you're doing?
I mean, this is some pretty detailed, really important work that you're doing. And I wonder what each of you, I mean, I know your focus isn't just rural or just metro or non-metro, but you're doing this for a reason. And I'm just curious what motivates you each, to come in every day.
And I see the smile on your face. What is it that about this that inspires you to just keep going and in search of data that can help people?
Alana Rhone: So food access is important because limited access to healthy and affordable food may make it harder for some people in the United States to achieve, you know, food security and a healthy diet. And as you mentioned earlier about the numbers that have limited food store access and live and do not have access to a vehicle and live far from a store.
And then in 2019, 40% of the U. S. Population live more than one mile from a food store. So this is an issue that impacts some people that live in the United States. And so that is our motivation is to conduct high quality and objective economic research to inform and enhance public and private decision making so that so that policy makers or people that's on the ground can come to solutions that work best for their community in them.
Michelle Rathman: And it's never-ending work. Matthew, what about you? You as in your role, you've been doing this for quite some time. You've got your you're kind of in a lot of really unique places. What motivates you to keep doing this work?
Matthew Rabbitt: I would say that, you know, my motivation is really to just work to anticipating the needs of policy makers and ensuring that, my research is of the highest quality and objective to where it can provide, direct information necessary for those that are trying to make public and private decisions to make sure that anyone living United States has access to a safe nutritious meals.
Michelle Rathman: Boy, Elena and Matthew, I'm so pleased that you joined us. You are, as I said, the second in this series. And next week, we are actually going to be talking with someone from the Rural Grocery Store Initiative. And we're going to be talking about You know, connecting these dots. So you provide us with a really important piece of this, which is talking about data and research and mapping tools that help us connect the dots, hopefully informing policy and inspiring people you know, to bring forth solutions.
So thank you so much to both of you for joining us. It's been a pleasure to have you on you're welcome back to share updates. We'll be kind of posting your updates with our show notes. And with that, I also want to make sure that I just remind you that you can subscribe to this podcast that way you don't have to even think about it. It's going to show up in your feed, wherever you like to listen. We're also on YouTube.
And I also want to make sure that I do think a Brea Corsaro, who is our associate producer. She does a lot of hard work. Also, Sarah Staub. She's so creative and she does have all our engineering and editing and our graphics.
And a special thanks to Jonah Mancino for the original music for the rural impact. Remember, these are not late subjects. But we do hope and we intend to enlighten you. And we hope you've learned a few things today. We'll talk to you again on a new episode of The Rural Impact. See you soon.